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Lessons from neuroscience about easing the pain of a breakup
Last month, an NPR story detailed rapper Dessa?s efforts to get over her ex ? using science. Inspired by a TED Talk from biological anthropologist Helen Fisher, Dessa told NPR, she used a technique called neurofeedback, which measures brain waves using electroencephalography (EEG) and turns them into visual or audio tones. The idea is that by seeing or hearing what?s happening in your brain, you can retrain your thoughts. In the context of breakups, by heading off constant thoughts about an ex, you could ostensibly speed up the process of getting over them.
Over the past several years, clinics offering neurofeedback for the treatment of anxiety, insomnia, headaches, and a host of other complaints have popped up all over the country. And especially with regard to heartbreak, it?s easy to see the appeal ? when you feel powerless against your own emotions, it?s soothing to think that there?s a process, with science behind it, that can help you regain control. Still, though Dessa told NPR she felt better after the therapy, there?s not a ton of research about the effectiveness of neurofeedback, and none about using it specifically for breakups.
But according to Fisher, chief scientific officer for the dating site Match and author of Anatomy of Love: A Natural History of Mating, Marriage, and Why We Stray, the idea does make some scientific sense. At the very least, there are lessons to be drawn from merging her research on the brain in love with the concepts underlying neurofeedback: Together, the two ideas can offer guidance to the newly single on how to speed up the post-split healing process, no brain-wave equipment required.
To understand how it?s possible to fall out of love more quickly, we first need to understand what a brain in love looks like. In the studies outlined in her TED Talk, one of which was published in the Journal of Comparative Neurology, Fisher placed people ? 17 who were in new relationships, 15 who had recently faced romantic rejection ? in a functional MRI (fMRI) to actually look at the neurological processes of falling in and out of love.
When Fisher showed still-lovestruck people in the fMRI photos of their significant others, their brains lit up like Christmas trees. ?We put people in the machine, and the results really amazed me,? she says. ?We found that when they looked at a picture of the person they love, the hypothalamus was pumping out dopamine? ? the neurotransmitter involved in pleasure and reward ? ?and sending it to many brain regions.?
?Understanding how we fall in love on a physiological level doesn?t necessarily mean we can control it, but it does mean we may be able to influence it.?
?The rind of your brain is the cortex, where you do your thinking, make decisions, and plot things,? Fisher explains. ?Then there?s the limbic system, and way below that, at the base of the brain, is where your instincts and drives are: hunger, thirst, lust.? And down there, in a region called the ventral tegmental area, is the hypothalamus ? what Fisher calls the brain?s dopamine factory.
?Dopamine is linked with feelings of elation, mood swings, cravings, and obsessive thinking,? she says. ?These are all basic traits of romantic love. When you start to fall for someone, everything about them is special. The house they live in, the street they live on, it?s all special to you. They?re dopamine triggers.? After you break up, reminders of that person trigger the same dopamine reaction, making it tougher to let go.
And this is where neurofeedback comes in. Understanding how we fall in love on a physiological level, Fisher says, doesn?t necessarily mean we can control it, but it does mean we may be able to influence it. You can?t make yourself forget, but when your head starts spinning with thoughts of an ex, you can redirect that pesky hormone. In her research, Fisher observed that when subjects in the fMRI machine shifted their focus to an unrelated task, the hypothalamus calmed down and stopped pumping out the dopamine that was making them feel lovestruck.
?We?d put a huge number ? like 4,821 ? on the screen, and ask them to count backward from there in increments of 12,? she explains. ?It forces the brain function away from the regions linked with love and into the regions for counting backward.?
That?s all you need to know to mimic Fisher?s experiment on your own. Don?t just make more plans with friends or pick up a new hobby; when you find yourself thinking about your ex, stop yourself immediately by doing something that requires your concentration ? even if it?s mindless.
?You can come up with a distractor that directs your function away from that deepest part of the brain,? Fisher says. ?Go pay your bills, balance your checkbook, play Scrabble, memorize a poem, play with Legos ? do something that stimulates your cortex instead.?
This is most effective if you can create an environment that doesn?t trigger the memories you?re trying to avoid. ?If you?re going to give up drinking, you don?t keep a bottle of bourbon on your desk,? Fisher says. In the same way, if you?re trying to ease the pain of a breakup, you can more easily distract yourself if you aren?t surrounded by traces of your relationship. Photos, voicemails, their old sweatshirt ? all should be deleted or disposed of. For the same reasons, Fisher says, staying in contact will only counteract your efforts to stay distracted: ?Don?t call, don?t write, and don?t try to be friends for a couple of years.?
If it sounds like a lot of work and a lot of willpower, that?s because it is. But the more you exert yourself, the less mental energy you have to dedicate to wallowing. And it does get easier. Distract yourself effectively enough times, and the addiction to an ex, or just to thinking constantly about a failed relationship, will eventually fade.
?Through putting people who?ve been rejected or dumped into the fMRI, we?ve discovered something promising,? Fisher says, ?which is that the attachment eventually reduces. Time does heal the brain.?