The Brief Biology of Breakups by Cristina Cimellaro
Breakups Suck. There’s no way around it, they just suck. Some are afflicted physically, most emotionally and all definitely mentally. But what’s going on in the brain that make breakups so damn difficult?
For the purpose of this blog, we are only going to consider biology. It’s beyond the scope of this piece to investigate how your romantic endeavors pan out if you weren’t breast fed or if your were raised by wolves. Or if you were breast fed BY wolves.
So let’s briefly review evolution: Small mutations lead to changes in your DNA that help a species survive or not survive in an environment. All of our physical, mental and emotional behavior is the result of eons of matings that have shaped your brain and body to be the most efficient survival mechanism in this environment.
An important component to enforcing behavior has been the development of the reward pathway. Dopamine, our happy friend, runs through the mesolimbic system like a hippie in a meadow, free of worry or care and bringing light and love to every neuron it meets. This reward pathway lights up when we eat, or engage in social activities or do something that supports survival because those things need to be reinforced. In fact, dopamine connected to rewards has been studied in flies and even worms. And they’ve been around far longer than our newbie species. So this reward pathway is super old and very efficient.
Part of our evolution that also increased our survival was pair bonding. Pair bonding led to a greater number of offspring surviving, thus it was a good thing that was kept around. On a neural level, what this means is that your brain is ready to latch onto your mate chemically, making all sorts of connections, specifically in the reward pathway. This reward pathway lights up in love, when we eat, and also… drum roll please… in addiction.
reproduce because those chemicals highjack the reward pathway. The brain also becomes addicted to mitigate the effects of withdrawal.
Let’s get down to the brain part of it. Our mesolimbic system, literally “midbrain,” has been shown to be involved in addiction. The purpose of this system is to relay messages between something called the ventral tegmental area and the nucleus accumbens, which then flood our synapses with the gleeful neurotransmitter dopamine. This release of dopamine in the nucleus accumbens is responsible for that pleasure feeling. Meanwhile, the amygdala makes sure that the event, environment or circumstances associated with that pleasure gets linked with a solid memory. This is why addicts are removed from their normal environment during rehabilitation, so the memories do not re-stimulate this pathway resulting in a relapse. Also, as it is fairly known, in drug addiction the receptors become accustomed to a certain amount of dopamine, which is why drug use will escalate, to produce the same level of pleasure.
In addition, the insular cortex and anterior cingulate, which handle actual pain signals, also light up like it is Christmas. The brain is so wired to keep that reward pathway going because that will ensure survival that it sends actual pain signals. No wonder why breakups are so hard to do.
This insular cortex is also involved in processing social emotions while anterior cingulate cortex is important in recognizing errors and emotion regulation. All of this means that the brain sends the signal not to break up since this social interaction is necessary for your very survival. But clearly, the brain can be tricked to think that it needs certain things to survive, like love, cocaine, heroin, even shopping (my favorite). It’s so convinced you need these things to survive, the stress hormone cortisol is also released during a breakup and your immune system is on alert. And there you have why you feel so crappy after a breakup.
Please note that not all experiences, beliefs and ideas are shared by each member of “The New Hollywood.” We are a group of shepherds, not sheep.