Can A Broken Heart Be Healed?

The only way out is to confuse the brain

The universal spell “time heals” was, until recently, the basis of restorative therapy for broken hearts. Luckily, science keeps up and scientists have finally found something worthwhile, translated into an effective (and quick!) way to solve the problem.

Breaking up a relationship is an ordeal that is hard to overcome. Separation turns the world inside out, knocks you down, brings you to tears, turns your stomach, and keeps you awake. Psychologists have found that the suffering becomes particularly unbearable if you’ve been left for someone else. “Not to mention the fact that breaking up because of infidelity forces the abandoned to endlessly torment themselves with questions about how the other is better, worrying about it increases the conflict between a growing sense of alienation and an inner need to belong,” explains a recent article in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

But here’s the good news: emotions after a break-up are amenable to correction! A recent study conducted at the University of Colorado at Boulder has shown that the pain associated with a break-up can be alleviated with a placebo (the name given to a “dummy” given to a patient as a real medicine).

Forty male and female victims of love dramas volunteered to take part in a study on how the brain reacts to relationship breakdown. The participants were asked to bring along a photograph of their loved one. After gazing at the picture and reflecting on the recent break-up, all respondents underwent a brain MRI scan. After that, a continuation of the experiment awaited them (no less brutal): they were physically hurt (for sympathizers there is a detail – not clear with what, but in the forearm area) and sent again to the MRI.

The result revealed that physical and emotional pain activate similar parts of the brain. As the study’s lead author, Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience Thor Weijer, summarised, “Emotional suffering, particularly the experience of breaking up with loved ones, is just as real from a physical perspective and just as real from a neurochemical perspective.”

But that’s not all. Scientists went on to experiment on heartbreak sufferers by dividing participants into two groups and giving the first a nasal spray designed to relieve emotional pain (it was actually a placebo). The other volunteers also received the aerosol, but knew that it only contained saline. After two weeks, those who knew they were irrigating their nostrils with saline water did not feel any better, but others who thought they were doing something effective felt much better.

Impressive? Definitely. Different kinds of suffering engage the same parts of the brain, but emotional trauma heals faster if you make the brain believe in a healing remedy. All that remains is to find a therapist who will prescribe candy, excuse me, heartbreak pills.