The power of love: can science cure heartbreak?

By Summer Revely

Love is so consuming that you may feel it is a ‘force from above’. Rejection causes us physical pain — sometimes equivalent to that of losing a loved one. But why is love so powerful? And if we can explain love biologically, can we actually mend a broken heart?

Robert Palmer’s depiction of being ‘Addicted to Love’ was fairly scientifically accurate. The release of the hormone norepinephrine in a fight or flight response also occurs during attraction, meaning that we sometimes quite literally ‘can’t sleep’ and ‘can’t eat’ when in love.

The saying ‘dumb love’ can be true too; attraction turns off regions of the pre-frontal cortex that control critical thinking self-awareness, and rationality. Decreased serotonin in the initial stages of love correlates with decreased levels in those with obsessive compulsive disorder, which some scientists have linked to the extreme infatuation of falling in love.

Dr Helen Fisher at Rutgers describes romantic love in terms of three categories — lust, attraction, and attachment — with different hormones being released in each stage.

These hormones can bring about a biological ‘addiction’ to love. Hormone release in those with strong attraction to an individual mirror those released during a cocaine high. As attachment to a partner rises, oxytocin increases like during the euphoric MDMA experience. It is therefore not abnormal to crave attention and presence from your partner like an addict in withdrawal.

But not all love is a fairy tale. Just as drug withdrawal is a long process to get through, so is heartbreak. We must actually alter our neural circuits to not be in love and addicted to a person anymore with time and distraction. Recently heartbroken people’s cortical regions (the area of the brain associated with addiction) light up under MRI when shown an image of their rejector.

Whilst nobody knows directly what causes the common physiological symptoms during heartbreak, like chest and stomach pain and nausea, it is believed that changes in activation of the autonomic nervous system upon loss of a partner cause it. In short, being dumped hurts.

In more extreme scenarios of heartbreak, usually in cases where a long-term partner is lost, people can even get ‘broken heart syndrome’. This is when the heart stops pumping blood efficiently after an emotional shock. In some severe cases, this can result in death. But recent scientific breakthroughs may suggest we can, in fact, mend these broken hearts.

In a Spanish study with initial intent to alleviate traumatic memories in PTSD-sufferers, administration of a sedative used for anaesthesia meant that participants were significantly less able to recall their trauma 24 hours after administration. Theoretically, this could be used in ‘broken heart syndrome’ sufferers to overcome the memories of a loved one to make the heartbreak hurt less.

We must actually alter our neural circuits to not be in love

Similarly, small-scale tests on neurofeedback — a technique where participants wear a helmet with electrical wires to retrain brainwaves — appear to be helpful in participants with PTSD and depression.

The removal of unwanted brain activity in this method by electroencephalography works similarly to the sedative described previously. It is used with intent to make participants feel less effected by past memories, which could be used to target memories regarding heartbreak.

When this technique was tried on rapper Dessa for nine sessions with intent to stop romantic obsession, she told The Guardian that she felt “less compelled and fixated” on her ex, and she “didn’t have the same surge of adrenaline” upon seeing them again. Whilst clearly this needs more trialling, initial work seems hopeful.

With new technology constantly in development, more anti-love biotechnologies appearing in the future seem very probable. However, Brian Earp, a psychology, philosophy, and ethics Professor at Oxford University points out ethical concerns regarding these treatments: “Might drugs one day be used to intentionally sever a romantic bond?”. He also describes how we learn from past experiences and adjust our future behaviours in new relationships. But, if used in a controlled manner, perhaps with protocols, anti-love biotechnologies potentially could really help sufferers of many mental health disorders.

For now, we must learn to overcome the challenges thrown at us by love and heartbreak. But with understanding of the science of love increasing greatly with time, this may not be the case in the future.

Illustration: Verity Laycock

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