Breakups suck. You can feel heartbroken for months, or even years, afterward. But here’s some good news to keep in mind: when your friends tell you you’ll move on and find someone new, they’re more right than you may think. According to a recent review in the journal Review of General Psychology, the human brain is fully equipped to fall out of love and move on, even if in the wake of heartbreak you don’t think you ever will.
Although humans tend to be monogamous — as in, mating with the same partner for years or decades — many of us experience that intense romantic bond with more than one person over our entire lifetime. So not only do we need the emotional capacity to form those bonds, we also need to be capable of breaking them, evolutionarily speaking. Otherwise we’d all lie in a pile on the floor destroyed after a breakup, and, well, that would be the end of the bloodline. Even though we all feel intense pain during the first few days (or weeks, or hell, few months) after we change our Facebook status to “single,” thanks to our nature, we are going to get over it.
In a press release, study author Brian Boutwell, Ph.D., associate professor of criminology and criminal justice and associate professor of epidemiology at Saint Louis University, said that previous research has suggested that we have a mental mechanism that helps get us through tough times in life. He explained, “It suggests people will recover; the pain will go away with time. There will be a light at the end of the tunnel.” To look into this theory, Boutwell and his colleagues looked at why and how we fall out of love and breakup. First, they looked at what happened in the brain when people fall in love.
Through MRI scans, the researchers found that the same parts of the brain that become active with cocaine use are activated by romantic attraction. This “may help explain the attachment that often follows the initial feelings of physical infatuation with a potential mate. Think of it as that initial feeling of falling in love, when you want to constantly be around the other person, almost in an addictive way,” Boutwell said. So when it comes to breaking those feelings, it may be comparable to asking an addict to kick his drug habit.
Researchers then looked at the brains of former addicts, and found that the brain changes significantly, developing a larger volume of gray matter. He explained:
“We might argue that different regions of the brain act in a way that once that addiction has been severed, then help to facilitate a person moving on and finding a new partner. A person might initially pursue their old mate — in an attempt to win back their affection. However, if pursuit is indeed fruitless, then the brains of individuals may act to correct certain emotions and behavior paving the way for people to become attracted to new mates and form new relationships.”
Next step to either prove or disprove Boutwell’s hypothesis would be examining the brains of men and women who have rebounded after a breakup and fallen in love again, to see how their brains have changed throughout the process. An individual’s ability to move on and find new love can also be influenced by environmental and genetic factors — which may explain why, even though we’re all capable of picking ourselves back up, some have a tougher time than others.