Love can literally mess with your head. Perhaps, more than your heart.
There’s a lot that happens in the brain, when we begin a relationship with someone. Explaining why we have those “butterflies” in our stomach, Sneha John, a clinical psychologist at the Medcare clinic, Dubai says, “That sensation, contrary to popular belief, isn’t really happening in your heart or stomach. It’s to do with the hormones and neurotransmitters at work.”
The fluctuating dopamine levels: The neurological ‘reset’
As John explains, there’s a heavy surge of dopamine, which is a neurotransmitter hormone in the brain’s “reward system” that helps people feel good. “Dopamine, along with other chemicals, fuels that energy and emotion, when we fall in love with someone,” she says. There’s constant gratification, when we’re in a satisfactory relationship.
"When one is with a life partner, dopamine, which is linked to pleasure and reward, rises, causing one to want to keep the relationship going," explains Alia El Naggar, assistant professor of psychology, at the Canadian University Dubai. "When you're with your partner, dopamine goes through the roof, making you feel on top of the world," she adds. "The 'love hormone,' oxytocin, strengthens emotional bonding and promotes stability in relationships. The biological basis for the emotional peaks in relationships is established by these neurochemicals," she says.
Dopamine, along with other chemicals, fuels that energy and emotion, when we fall in love with someone. There’s constant gratification, when we’re in a satisfactory relationship.
However, when a person ends a relationship, there are regions or pain centers in the brain that are heightened in activity, she says. The brain loses access to the regular supply of the neurotransmitters, which compels a person to go into a “neurological” withdrawal, says Kara Khalid, a Dubai-based neuropsychiatrist. This deficit of the neurochemicals pushes a person into depression, and isolation; there’s also an increase in the cortisol or stress chemical levels. As a result, the brain starts looking to replace the chemicals by any means necessary.
As a result, the brain goes through a “neurological” reset. People seek to replace those dopamine levels with other activities, like meeting friends or going to the gym. However, it could also take a turn for the worse, such as trying to get into another relationship quickly before processing the grief of the earlier one, adds John. There’s a reduction of oxytocin or happiness hormone levels, which leads to feelings of loneliness, as this particular neurotransmitter is responsible for social bonding and attachment.
When you're with your partner, dopamine goes through the roof, making you feel on top of the world. The 'love hormone,' oxytocin, strengthens emotional bonding and promotes stability in relationships. The biological basis for the emotional peaks in relationships is established by these neurochemicals...
“The person will look for anything that gives them pleasure,” she says. However, this could be engaging in reckless activities to enjoy the dopamine hit, which could have further repercussions and damage the healing process in a person.
The brain activity during grief
Ending a relationship can send you into neurological turmoil. In fact, the brain regions that control responses to distress and physical pain, show to be particularly active in the brains of those suffering loss, says Khalid.
They intensify the ‘separation’ distress, as a result, the grief, sadness and pain of a relationship ending feels heightened. Worse, it also triggers the body’s fight-or-flight response. Another fall-out being it affects mental concentration, as these brain centers manage that aspect too.
So, if you’ve ever wondered why it’s difficult to concentrate after a breakup, there’s a scientific reason for it. The prefrontal cortex of the brain, which is essential for decision-making and rational thinking, shows decreased activity during the mourning period after the end of a relationship. As a result, it is difficult to think clearly and make sound decisions. The shock and emotion colours the brain differently; and so there’s decreased activity in the regions that comprehend logic. “The prefrontal cortex reduces its efficiency as it cannot understand what’s happening; it waits till the stress levels reduce,” Khalid says.
What recent research says: Can we move on from a break-up?
The scientific website Neuroscience News provides an example: When you get in the car to meet your partner for dinner, there’s a surge of dopamine. It’s what keeps your energy levels at its peak: You want to brave the traffic and keep the bond alive. However, if that dinner is just a casual acquaintance, the ‘flood’ of the hormone is a mere trickle.
The dopamine levels are fueled in the brain’s reward center, when interacting with a life partner, as compared to a casual acquaintance. However, recent research says that the dopamine response to a former partner weakens. This could indicate a possible neurological mechanism, to move on from lost relationships.
According to a 2024 study conducted at the US-based University of Colorado published in the American academic journal Current Biology, dopamine, which surges in the presence of a life partner, can diminish after a lengthy separation. This suggests a possible neurological reset that could help in overcoming heartbreak. The experiment was conducted on voles, which are rodents. The neuroimaging technology measures what happens in the brain as a vole tries to get to its partner. In one scenario, the vole had to push a lever to open a door to the room, where her partner was. In another, she had to climb over a fence for that reunion. The sensors detected surges of dopamine, and that the region ‘lit up’ like a glowstick. However, the dopamine surges diminished, when the voles reunited after being separated for several weeks.
The research pointed to evidence that the brain has an inherent mechanism to protect the person from endless unrequited love and heartbreak, the study noted. This could be viewed as a reset within the brain that allows the animal to now go on and potentially form a new bond. Nevertheless, these experiments still need more research, for a satisfactory conclusion.