The pain and anguish of rejection by a romantic partner may be the result of activity in parts of the brain associated with motivation, reward and addiction cravings, according to a study published in the July issue of the Journal of Neurophysiology (http://jn.physiology.org/).
The study’s findings could have implications for understanding why feelings related to romantic rejection can be hard to control, and may provide insight into extreme behaviors associated with rejection, such as stalking, homicide and suicide—behaviors that occur across many cultures throughout the world.Study Design and Findings
Participants each viewed a photograph their former partners. Then they completed a simple math exercise, such as counting backwards from a random four-digit number by 7, to distract them from their romantic thoughts. Finally, they viewed a photograph of a familiar “neutral” person, such as a roommate’s friend.
The researchers found that looking at photographs of the participants’ former partners stimulated several key areas of the participants’ brains more than looking at photos of neutral persons did. The areas are:
• the ventral tegmental area in the mid-brain, 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.
The researchers note that their findings supply evidence that “the passion of ‘romantic love’ is a goal-oriented motivation state rather than a specific emotion” and that their results are “consistent with the hypothesis that romantic rejection is a specific form of addiction.” Those who are coping with a romantic rejection may be fighting against a strong survival system that appears to be the basis of many addictions. The data help to explain why the beloved is so difficult to give up.Hope for the Lovelorn
Editor’s Note: To arrange an interview with study researcher Helen Fisher or Lucy Brown, please contact Donna Krupa at (301) 634-7209 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Physiology is the study of how molecules, cells, tissues and organs function to create health or disease. The American Physiological Society (APS) has been an integral part of this scientific discovery process since it was established in 1887.
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