Helen Fisher, a biological anthropologist at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, knows all about love. She has observed the brain regions associated with romantic love light up as a man gazes at his inamorata, both in new relationships and in decades-long marriages. Fisher seems to have become a bit jaded by years of Hallmark moments, however. “Who cares about people who are happily in love?” she wants to know. “It’s when you’ve been rejected that you turn into a menace.” So she has started exploring the science of heartbreak instead.
In a study published in May, Fisher and her colleagues asked 15 people who had recently been dumped but were still in love to consider two pictures—one of the former partner and one of a neutral acquaintance—while an MRI scanner measured their brain activity. When looking at their exes, the spurned lovers showed activity in parts of the brain’s reward system, just as happy lovers do. But the neural pathways associated with cravings and addictions were activated too, as was a brain region associated with the distress that accompanies physical pain.
Rejected lovers also showed increased neural response in regions involved in assessing behavior and controlling emotions. “These people were working on the problem, thinking, what did I do, what should I do next, what did I learn from this,” Fisher says. And the longer ago the breakup was, the weaker the activity in the attachment-linked region. In other words: Love hurts, but time heals.