March 28, 2011

Science Now Backs Broken Hearts: Proof That Love Hurts

Have you ever felt so heartbroken you thought dying would feel better? Cried so hard over the pain you couldn't breathe? Felt your heart actually ache? (Please don't tell me I'm the only one.)

Scientists have discovered that our brains react to heartbreak the same way it reacts to physical pain. In fact, just thinking about that heartache can show up in an fMRI.

The findings come from a study that was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Scientists from around the country looked at scans from 40 lovelorn New Yorkers. When the participants thought about their exes, two spots in the brain (the secondary somatosensory cortex and the dorsal posterior insula) became active -- the same spots that were active when participants were exposed to a high source of heat similar to an extremely hot cup of coffee. The study's conclusion? Emotional pain is somehow linked to physical pain.

This discovery could be the first step toward understanding how to better treat people suffering from heartache. The scientists who led the study now wonder if treatment of physical pain could somehow reduce emotional pain.

Breakups can trigger all sorts of physical reactions: crying, jittery nerves, eye twitching, and that horrible aching feeling in the chest. For years, anthropoligist Dr. Helen Fisher, who studies love and the brain, says people release high levels of dopamine and cortisol after breakups -- which causes frantic reactions and, for some, embarrassing efforts to get the attention of their lost love. The high dopamine levels (which are also found when someone falls in love or is on cocaine) can cause jilted lovers to appear crazy (think "Fatal Attraction). As those levels of dopamine drop, many people wind up dealing with heart attacks, stroke, depression and some even resort to suicide. Yes, it's true -- you really can die from a broken heart.

How a person recovers from a broken heart varies, and much of it depends on the way a person was raised or how they've dealt with grief in the past. But as we gain more insight into how the human mind and body respond to heartbreak, we may find more than just "time" to heal our wounds.

{sources: 1, 2, 3}

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