Wallowing in the sting of romantic rejection? Is that tragic "hit and quit" experience keeping you up at night? It's not your fault. Neuroscientists say your brain is hardwired to crave the rollercoaster of romantic fulfillment - and rejection.
A group of researchers recently discovered that people suffering romantic rejection were displaying neurological patterns normally associated with the brain's reward and addiction centers. Their research, which appears this month in Journal of Neurophysiology, suggests that recovery from a breakup may be akin to recovering from drug addiction:
Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), researchers recorded the brain activity of 15 college-age adults who had recently been rejected by their partners but reported that they were still intensely "in love." Upon viewing photographs of their former partners, several key areas of participants' brains were activated, including the ventral tegmental area, which controls motivation and reward and is known to be involved in feelings of romantic love; the nucleus accumbens and orbitofrontal/prefrontal cortex, which are associated with craving and addiction, specifically the dopaminergic reward system evident in cocaine addiction; and the insular cortex and the anterior cingulate, which are associated with physical pain and distress.
By tying these specific areas of the brain to romantic rejection, the research provides insight into the anguished feelings that can accompany a break-up, as well as the extreme behaviors that can occur as a result, such as stalking, homicide and suicide.
"Romantic love, under both happy and unhappy circumstances, may be a ‘natural' addiction," said [neuroscientist Lucy] Brown. "Our findings suggest that the pain of romantic rejection may be a necessary part of life that nature built into our anatomy and physiology. A natural recovery, to pair up with someone else, is in our physiology, too."
In some ways, this study reminds me of what neuroscientists have discovered about gambling addiction, where losing can give you as much of a dopamine squirt as winning does. It may not feel great, but you could be getting high on getting dumped.
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