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  • Writer's pictureAntonia Boorman

Love as a Drug and the Neuroscience of Heartbreak

This piece was written in April 2019 for Minerva’s Cognitive Neuroscience course as part of my undergraduate degree and published on Minerva's University Magazine, The Quest here.


Author's Note

Why do heartbreaks hurt so much? Why does the pain you experience from a broken heart physically feel like an open wound? Why is it so hard to stop thinking about your ex or resist the urge to text them?

After going through an emotional and painful break-up, I decided to turn to the therapy I know best; Neuroscience. I wanted to know exactly what is happening in my brain to make me feel such intense pain in my break-up and why I found it so difficult not to relapse into texting my ex or giving up all self-worth and agreeing to sell my soul in order to get him back. So I decided to examine the neuroscience of heartbreak to discover the answers to these questions and hopefully help myself heal along the way.

Review of background literature

The main components that I will be examining in this paper are: how the brain reacts to heartbreak and why we feel physical pain from an emotional experience; why when you’ve experienced a break-up, you find yourself constantly thinking of them, struggling to focus, as well as resist the urge to stalk them on social media or text/call them; and lastly, how to overcome heartbreak by understanding the neural underpinnings of what is happening in the brain.

Social vs Physical Pain

When people experience heartbreak they describe feeling their pain physically; “my heart is broken”, “it was a slap in the face”, “my heart aches”, etc. Why? There is significant evidence to suggest a neural overlap between the experiencing of physical and social pain. To experience physical pain, there is a network inside the brain that can be summarised into two core stages; the registering of pain (sensory-discriminative) and the feeling of pain (affective-motivational) (Treede, Kenshalo, Gracely, & Jones, 1999). When someone experiences physical pain, there is activation in the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (dACC) and the anterior insula (AI) which is also activated when a person experiences social rejection or exclusion (Tchalova & Eisenberger, 2015). This suggests that when someone describes their heartbreak as “hurting” there is a biological component backing this (Kross, Berman, Mischel, Smith, & Wager, 2011).

Furthermore, animal lesion studies in monkeys have illustrated that the dACC regulates separation distress. Lesions in the ACC, dorsal and ventral, resulted in the monkeys’ antisocial behaviour such as disinterest in proximity seeking (Hadland et al., 2003). Monkeys who were previously distressed by separation from loved ones lost their distressed symptoms after the lesions occurred.

Neural Correlates of Love & Heartbreak

Fisher gathered a group of individuals, 15 participants total, who were “happily in love” to study the effect of love on the brain (Fisher, 2001). Using an fMRI, she scanned the participants as they looked at a photograph of their beloved and during the viewing of the control of an acquaintance, interspersed with a distraction-attention task. She found activity in the ventral tegmental area (VTA) which is involved in the brain’s reward system and within the A10 cells which contribute to the creation of dopamine (Fisher, 2001). These areas have been known to be part of the reptilian core of the brain (Fisher, 2001) that is associated with motivation, craving, and focus (Fisher, 2001). Lastly, activation of the insular cortex was found which justifies the intense range of emotions expressed during a breakup (Fisher, 2001).

Fisher repeated this experiment with participant experiencing a recent painful breakup (Fisher, 2010). Using fMRI, she tested another 15 participants who had recently experienced a breakup (within 2 weeks) and still felt “intensely in love” (Fisher, 2010). Under the fMRI, she discovered activation of the VTA bilaterally, ventral striatum, medial and lateral orbitofrontal / prefrontal cortex, and cingulate gyrus (Fisher, 2010). These areas have been previously identified within tasks involving gains and losses, craving and emotion regulation (Fisher, 2010). Fisher found that adversity, such as heartbreak, tends to heighten the craving of the partner that the strong social bond has been created with (Fisher, 2001) and that since this reward (ie. rush of dopamine from interacting with the partner) is delayed, the reward-expecting neurons within the reward system prolong their activity waiting for that rush, making it difficult to move on. This can explain why after a breakup an individual may crave their partner and find it difficult to focus on other things.

Love as a drug

Oxytocin, aka the “love hormone”, develops to form and strengthen social bonds. Oxytocin is produced in the hypothalamus and is produced at its highest levels during times of high happiness (such as love) and social stress (such as separation). It is especially present in females, produced during pregnancy to strengthen the bonds between mother and child (DeAngelis, 2008). Dopamine, associated with increased pleasure and reward-seeking, and Serotonin, associated with mood-regulation and happiness, also are present when people fall in love (Fisher, 2016). For example, Dopamine is released during an orgasm, which results in an intensely pleasurable experience, yet so is oxytocin and vasopressin, which are the neurochemicals associated with love-bonding and attachment, which is why it’s incredibly easy to fall in love with someone you’re “just hooking up with” (Fisher, 2016). During a breakup, we lose our regular supply of these neurochemicals; oxytocin, dopamine, and serotonin. This then leads to an experience similar to a drug addict experiencing withdrawal, the experience of which results from the loss of the same neurochemicals (Fisher, 2016).

When examined using fMRI, again by Fisher (2016), comparing the brains of individuals experiencing a breakup and those experiencing cocaine withdrawals, Fisher found that not only we both sets of individuals suffering from the aforementioned neurochemical withdrawal but also showed activation of the subcortical reward system in the forebrain; the ventral striatum and region of the nucleus accumbens core, ventral/ pallidum/putamen, and orbitofrontal/prefrontal cortex (Fisher 2016). The nucleus accumbens and the prefrontal cortex are strongly correlated with the feeling of craving and resistance difficulty, outlining why obsessive behaviours such as stalking social media, compulsive texting and thinking about their partner constantly are to be expected (Fisher 2016 ). This link between drug addiction and romantic love highlights how hard breakups and separation from a partner can be for an individual to cope with (Fisher 2016).

Another example from animal studies (Grippo, Porges & Carter, 2007) illustrates that female prairie voles separated from their siblings for 4 weeks experienced separation anxiety, stress, and depression. When these voles were given either oxytocin or saline (control) daily, the voles receiving oxytocin no longer exhibited symptoms of separation anxiety, stress, and depression, while the voles receiving saline treatment continued to exhibit these symptoms (Grippo, Porges & Carter, 2007).


So, how can a person overcome this neurobiological addiction to their ex that physically cause them pain?

In order to dissolve the oxytocin enriched neurological love bond, a theory from Fisher is to go “love sober” for at least 30 days (Fisher, 2016), meaning that you lose contact completely with your partner; no calling/texting, no stalking social media, and especially no sex with them (which will completely undo any progress made as orgasm releases extremely high oxytocin and dopamine levels). This hasn’t been tested empirically, however, which is what I propose to do. The addictive nature of this neurochemical in the brain examined above exemplifies that this will not be an easy thing to do, meaning that using an alternate supply of oxytocin may be needed to aid this progress.

Antidepressants may be used to cure the pain of a broken heart, however, they reduce dopamine levels by increasing serotonin levels (Fisher, 2004). This can be effective to the extent that it will kill the individual’s sex drive or desire for love, and without this, it will reduce the flow of oxytocin and dopamine, which could reduce attachment to a partner (Fisher, 2004). Yet, by putting a person on antidepressants this demolition of the sex drive will mean that the individual would most likely lose interest in anyone, not just their ex, which could be problematic (Fisher, 2004).

I hypothesize that if there is an increase in oxytocin levels in an individual, through direct intervention, then this will be more beneficial than an increase in serotonin levels (through direct intervention) in terms of reducing social pain while reducing attachment levels which will be seen through the individual experiencing less pain and less attachment, which will be reported through the questionnaires described below. I further hypothesize that if the 30-day period is followed strictly, it will be effective.

Experimental Design

To test this I propose an experiment with two main approaches;

The first approach concerns humans, around 60 participants will be needed. The famous Fisher experiment of showing the individuals pictures of their recent ex and measuring brain activity using an fMRI will be repeated. I hypothesis to find the same results as Fisher has reported.

The participants will be divided into 4 groups. All but one group (Group D) will be instructed to strictly follow the 30 days love-sober period; they must block their ex on social media, not contact them and not intentionally seek to see them in person. On top of this, Group A will receive a daily dose of oxytocin for the last 2 weeks of the 30 day period; Group B will receive a daily dose of serotonin for the same period, and Group C will receive no further intervention. After 30 days, the same experiment will be repeated and their brains scanned using an fMRI to see if the brain areas previously activated (VTA and dorsal striatum) are again activated. Accompanying this before and after the 30 day period, participants will fill out a questionnaire reporting their feelings of love, pain, and attachment related to their ex-partner.

The comparison between Group C and Group D will examine whether or not the 30 day period has been effective and to what extent. The comparison between Group A and Group B will examine the effects of oxytocin and serotonin as a therapeutic pharmaceutical way of replacing the oxytocin and dopamine lost from the breakup. After the experiment detailed above, I hypothesize to no longer see activation in the VTA and the dorsal striatum related to viewing the pictures of their ex from Group A and Group B. The extent to which this is seen, plus the feedback from the questionnaire, will be used to assess which neurochemical, serotonin or oxytocin, is more effective at curing a broken heart. If there is no longer see activation in the VTA and the dorsal striatum from Group C then it can be concluded that no intervention is needed, just space and time.

To Conclude

This experiment would be a significant contribution to the field of cognitive neuroscience and to the benefit of society by examining heartbreak enough to help individuals through it with the use of pharmaceuticals. Using the experiment detailed above, cognitive scientists will have a more concrete idea of how separation from a partner affects the brain and how different neurochemicals can quicken the healing process by reducing attachment to a partner and thus the addictive properties. This way we will have a more holistic understanding of how social pain, such as heartbreak, effects the brain and will have an idea of which neurochemical influx can be used to inform public policy such as the creation of oxytocin based pharmaceuticals to help a person heal less painfully and more effectively, making heartbreaks a less painful experience


Author’s Note

Neurofeedback is a controversial therapy technique where the participant uses fMRI or EEG to see the neural activity of their symptoms. It’s been used for anxiety, depression, autism, and ADHD. The technique implies that once people see what is happening in their brains, they are able to understand it and try to change it to the desired state. The effect of neurofeedback may just be based on the placebo effect and can be very costly for treatment. Yet, for some, it works. For me, researching the neuroscience of heartbreak and understanding my own pain in terms of the biological processes within my brain has really helped me to feel less pain. I understand that it’s okay to feel the pain in the same way that if I broke my leg it’s okay to experience that pain. I’ve learned how to combat that pain by supplying myself with oxytocin in the form of friendship, exercise, and chocolate! I will also be attempting the 30-day no contact period so see if it works for me. Writing this paper has helped me to learn and directly apply my understanding of neuroscience to make a positive healing effect in my life.



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