For a study recently published in the Journal of Neurophysiology, researchers scanned the brains of people who had recently been dumped. They found the areas of the brain that were activated were the same as in those who are withdrawing from cocaine.
Breaking up can be painful, we all know. But now researchers are showing that heartbreak produces many of the same physical symptoms as cocaine withdrawal.
The study used MRIs to record the brain activity of 15 college-aged men and women who had recently been dumped by their long-term partners and who described themselves as still being "intensely in love."
The participants’ brains were scanned as they looked at images of their lost loves. Then each was shown a neutral image of a casual acquaintance for comparison purposes.
Researchers found that looking at photos of former partners stimulated several key areas of participants’ brains much more than viewing pictures of neutral people. (A similar effect can be observed when images of crack cocaine are shown to crack cocaine addicts. Even just the image or the thought of crack releases dopamine in the addict’s brain.)
Specifically, the nucleus accumbens and prefrontal cortex (related to intense addiction to cocaine and cigarettes) were activated, as were the ventral tegmental area which is related to feelings of romantic love, and the insular cortex and the anterior cingulate which is related to physical pain.
Study author and clinical professor of neuroscience at Albert Einstein College of Medicine Dr. Lucy Brown says romantic love can offer the same high as cocaine, and create similar feeling of withdrawal when the reward is withdrawn. But she notes that while romantic love and cocaine can be addictive, it’s natural to get addicted to love.
"An interesting perspective is that romantic love is the natural, original addiction. Nature gave us this addiction, and in a sense we need it. It protects us," she told CTV’s Canada AM Monday from New York.
She also notes that while breaking an addiction to a romantic love is hard, it can be done. "You have to let the unconscious processes in your brain help you to heal. Time will change things," she said.
"And we can take a lesson from people who are recovering from cocaine addition and go to support groups: talk to people who are supportive, people who are sympathetic and understand. Talk about it. Think about what was good about the relationship and what was bad about it. And know that nature has given you these symptoms the next time."