Why do breakups hurt so much? The answers of science – L’Express

Why do breakups hurt so much The answers of science

Flooded by the muddy waters of sorrow, the heart sometimes begins to swell. The organ then stops beating and freezes in an oval shape, round in the center, pointed at the end. A syndrome, the biological equivalent of “broken heart”, that Japanese doctors, the first to describe it, designate by these few words: “Tako-tsubo”. This is the name of these jars that the fishermen of the archipelago throw into the oceans to bait cephalopods. Oval, rigid and hollow, too.

These “octopus trap” hearts that have been drawn in medical reports since the end of the 1970s show it: in the most extreme cases, it is possible to die from love heartbreak, one of the stresses likely to trigger Tako-tsubo. Naive lovers, who are having dinner this Wednesday to celebrate Valentine’s Day, be careful: love, true love, the one that fills your legs with cotton, leaves a most cumbersome void when it leaves.

The other slams the door and the whole world evaporates. In addition to destroying common projects, the breakup and the loneliness that accompanies it put an end to the storm of dopamine and natural opioids that gives this ardor to the budding romance. Without these hormones, peaking at the time of a crush, the euphoria is over. “We go from heaven to hell,” comments Donatella Marazziti, psychiatrist at the University of Pisa, Italy.

The fascinating mystery of love

Like more and more scientists, the specialist is fascinated by the chemistry of love, and the upheavals it causes in the body. The phenomenon remains surprisingly mysterious in the eyes of science, despite advances in neurology and its increasingly efficient scanners. “We are only at the beginning of the adventure,” recognizes the specialist, author of a literature review on the subject, published in the journal Advances in Experimental Medicine and Biologyin 2021.

But scientists still agree that the feeling of love corresponds to a physiological impulse, in the same way as the sexual or parental impulse. Social construction is not everything. This is why this “altered state of consciousness”, as scholars say, is described in almost all societies, as was notably shown in the 1990s by the American anthropologist Helen Fisher, a leading specialist in romance.

Since the advent of brain imaging in the 2000s, researchers have worked hard to unravel the different reactions at the origin of this irresistible momentum. A puzzle, as the phenomenon is so complex and intricate. To simplify the equation, two periods are often distinguished: that of romanticism, the racing pulse, the tremors, the intrusive thoughts, the obsession. And that of attachment, later, more subtle, but just as delicious. In this case, it is mainly oxytocin and vasopressins who intervene, among others.

Getting used to ecstasy

We generally move from one to the other, from “stress” or “fear” – that’s what love looks like on an anatomical level – to a feeling of completeness: “The phase romantic only lasts on average between 6 months and two years, then fades to give way to the stable and sweet pleasure of romantic companionship”, specifies Donatella Marazziti. Everything then happens as if we were getting used to ecstasy. So much so that some researchers dare to compare the severity of the breakup to “withdrawal”.

It must be said that, like drugs, love reshapes the brain. Drastically: “The changes are more important than those which prepare for maternal behavior during pregnancy, that is to say, continues Donatella Marazziti. Love changes us to such an extent that it is possible to differentiate one loving brain from another just with medical imaging.” On the MRI, the distraught brain sparkles differently than one which has never experienced such a sensation.

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Among the most “modified” areas is the ventral tegmental area. An area linked to primary behaviors, such as drinking when thirsty or eating when hungry. These studies, led among others by Lucy Brown, a leading specialist in the biology of emotions at the Einstein College of Medicine (New York), are still in their infancy. It is difficult to interpret exactly what we see in the image. Especially since the scans are carried out on a limited number of people. But these results suggest that love can take the form of need.

A need, almost an addiction

The romance also reconfigures the reward system, motivation, pleasure. Lasting modifications, even in the absence of stimulation from the loved one, and “analogous” to those caused by drug addiction, can we read here and there in the literature, as in this study based on MRIs of in love, published in 2020 in Brain Imaging Behavior. Breaking up can therefore profoundly disrupt brain function. To the point of giving in to madness. The ventral tegmental area is also associated with certain psychiatric disorders.

As shown in particular by a study published in 2010 in Journal of Neurophysiology, romantic disappointments activate the “craving” circuits, this irrepressible desire to consume addictive substances. Rejection also seems to be a risk factor for addictive behavior: fruit flies that do not find sexual partners – the closest thing to romance in this animal – tend to drink four times more alcohol than others, according to a study published in 2012 in Science.

Some researchers therefore call for inspiration from love mechanisms to combat addiction. As in this article, published in 2016 in Frontiers in Psychology and signed by Helen Fisher herself. Like substance abuse, it happens that some lovers pursue the first euphoria of love wholeheartedly. “To the point of tolerating aggressive behavior from their partner,” adds Donatella Marazziti. The biological equivalent of “toxic relationships”, so to speak.

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Benefits that last

Not everyone loses their mind; the comparison with addiction has its limits. Old friends can end up so attached to each other that they become lovers. That’s also love, not necessarily a whirlwind. And organic doesn’t mean obligatory: it’s possible not to feel much: it’s difficult to be stimulated when you’re in poor health, depressed, or addicted. Finally, love lasts, unlike artificial ecstasy. Studies, such as the one published in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience in 2011 show that its benefits can last for more than 20 years.

All these works underline the weight of love on the body. Reason then can’t do much about it. Turning the page on a relationship requires much more than good will and a volley of “you’ll see, it’ll be okay.” When octopuses find the right amphora, during their pilgrimages to the bottom of the oceans, they never leave it. The cephalopods cling to it with all their might, even when tossed around by fishing boats. As if they couldn’t get away from it. The only solution to separate them from their cocoon and hope to make a salad out of them: tear them out.