Breaking Up Is Like Defeating an Addiction
We have heard the song “Breaking Up Is Hard To Do”, and scientist at Stony Brook University think they have found out why. A team of researchers including Arthur Aron, Ph.D., professor of social and health psychology and former graduate students Greg Strong and Debra Mashek, researched subjects who had a recent breakup and found that the pain and anguish they feel may be linked to activation of parts of the brain associated with motivation, reward and addiction cravings.
“This brain imaging study of individuals who were still ‘in love’ with their rejecter supplies further evidence that the passion of ‘romantic love’ is a goal-oriented motivation state rather than a specific emotion,” the researchers concluded, noting that brain imaging showed some similarities between romantic rejection and cocaine craving.
The study can also possibly explain why feelings and behaviors related to romantic rejection are difficult to control and why extreme behaviors associated with romantic rejection such as stalking, homicide, suicide, and clinical depression occur.
“Romantic rejection is a major cause of suicides and depression. We have known very little about it. Understanding the neural systems involved is extremely important both for advancing our basic knowledge of intense romantic love in general and of response to rejection in particular,” said Dr. Aron.
The researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to record brain activity in 15 college age people who had recently gone through a breakup. Participants were shown a photograph of their former partner, then completed a simple math exercise to distract them from their romantic thoughts. They then viewed a photograph of a familiar “neutral” person.
The researchers found that viewing photographs of their former partners stimulated areas of the brains to a greater degree than when they looked at photos of neutral persons.
“It shows that intense romantic love seems to function much like an addiction,” Dr. Aron said. “But that does not tell us one way or the other whether the desire to be in love in general is an addiction.” Dr. Aron noted that some of what has been learned over the years in this area may be useful in helping people attempting to recover from drug addiction.