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Neuroscience of A Broken Heart: An Unfortunate Consequence of Life

Updated: Mar 7

Author: Branden Chen

Editor: Jasleen Matharu and Megan Liu

Artist: Jenny Li

Regardless of who you are or where you are from, we all experience emotional pain throughout our lives, whether it is heartbreak, sadness, or anxiety. These sentiments come from a myriad of experiences; they can be as severe as the passing of a loved one or as negligible as a poor test grade. Our emotions can be confusing; sometimes the person feeling them does not comprehend the entirety of what is happening. But why do we feel emotional pain? The answer lies within the brain—the captain of our body.

Science has shown that the basis of love is activated in the caudate nucleus in the brain, commonly known as, “the reward system”. This system is associated with addiction, and interestingly enough, scientists believe that love is not an emotion, although it does contain highly emotional aspects. The feeling of romance is like an addiction, just like using nicotine or cocaine, causing the release of dopamine, which is a neurotransmitter responsible for the feeling of pleasure. The presence of dopamine and oxytocin, a hormone known as the “love hormone,” makes an individual feel good, thus causing the individual to continuously seek the stimulus of these hormones, which in this case, is love.

When heartbreak occurs, the brain registers this lack of love the same way it deals with physical pain, thus explaining why heartbreak can cause physical pain. Scientists attribute the discomfort to the triggering of the sympathetic system, the fight-or-flight system that increases activity in the heart and lungs, and the parasympathetic system, which slows down the heart. Furthermore, the lack of dopamine and oxytocin causes an influx of cortisol, the stress hormone. An excess of cortisol can contribute to symptoms such as stress, anxiety, nausea, which can become dangerous. For instance, Takotsubo cardiomyopathy, a syndrome caused by heartbreak, involves heart attack-like symptoms, such as intense chest pain, shortness of breath, and dizziness. However, the syndrome does not typically result in permanent damage like a heart attack but can be stressful due to its similarity to one.

Research shows that those who have left a relationship experience fascinating patterns in the brain. For example, in the midbrain, neurons that fired due to the “reward” of love continued to wait for the “reward” although there was none left, showing that these individuals were still “in love” waiting for love to happen. These individuals also reported a lack of emotional control for up to months after a breakup.

When it comes to emotions like heartbreak, it is vital to express how you feel. After all, emotions are just a form of energy that wants to be released. Sharing our emotions allows us to manage the most difficult feelings, preventing a buildup that could potentially cause further emotional harm. Understanding that loved ones are always there to alleviate problems, do not be ashamed to seek professional help. It’s essential to keep our ship in pristine condition to avoid a shipwreck.



“The Science behind a Broken Heart.”, 2017,

“This Is Your Brain on Heartbreak.” Greater Good, 2013,

“The Importance of Naming Your Emotions (Published 2015).” The New York Times, 2021,


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