Spurned lovers’ brains reflect risk evaluation, pain

From Washington, D.C., at a meeting of the Society for Neuroscience

Relationships too often end with feelings of hurt, longing, and craving. A new study suggests that scientists can see those emotions reflected in brain images of lovers who were recently spurned.

Three years ago, Lucy Brown of Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York and her colleagues identified brain areas that seem to be active when someone is happily in love. In the new study, the researchers recruited 17 women and men who were unhappy about being recently dumped by a partner.

The team scanned the brains of the volunteers as each one viewed a picture of his or her former sweetheart and a photo of an emotionally neutral acquaintance. To cleanse their brains of strong emotions between photos, the subjects counted backward in increments of seven.

The researchers found that the brains of these rejected lovers behaved differently than those of the contented lovers in the previous study. When viewing pictures of their beloveds, people in both groups showed increased activity in brain areas associated with rewards. However, spurned lovers showed more activity in the nucleus accumbens and the ventral striatum, regions associated with evaluating risks and sizing up payoffs when gambling. Rejected lovers also had more activity in the insular cortex, a brain region associated with physical pain and anxiety.

Brown notes that the findings may explain the visceral pain that many people feel after a rejection. Brain activity associated with gambling could clarify why some people choose to pursue a loved one after a breakup, even when the payoff is uncertain, she says. “To the rejected person, love is the greatest prize,” says Brown.

From the Nature Index

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