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The science of a broken heart

Rooting around under the hood of lovelorn turmoil

The science of a broken heart
09 February 2017

Takotsubo cardiomyopathy. Or as it’s more commonly known: broken heart syndrome. A surge of post-break-up adrenaline courses through the body and hits the ol’ blood pumper as hard as a poison arrow shot by Cupid’s twisted, psychopathic twin. Six-thousand cases of it are reported in the UK every year. 

And yet, despite such an epidemic, our general perception is that it’s psychosomatic. A phantom ailment conjured from an overactive mind. But is it? 

“Biologically, you’re feeling genuine pain during a break-up,” explains Robin Dunbar, professor of evolutionary psychology at Oxford University and author of The Science Of Love And Betrayal. “We process psychological pain in exactly the same part of the brain as physical pain.”

Which will make sense to you if you’ve ever spent six months of your life trapped in a dirge of teary abject misery following a broken courtship. But it’s more than just depressed pain receptors – there are also physical manifestations.

“In a stressful event like a break-up, instead of stimulating the heart, adrenaline depresses it,” explains Sian Harding, professor of cardiac pharmacology at the National Heart And Lung Institute, Imperial College. “With takotsubo cardiomyopathy, the left ventricle of the heart enlarges in shape. You end up with the pointy bit at the bottom not contracting properly, while the top of the heart works normally – the heart becomes balloon-shaped.

“Patients go in with what looks like a heart attack, but there’s no blockage – it’s simply the effects of the adrenaline. That’s how traumatic a break-up can be.”

‘Traumatic’ is putting it lightly. Studies have shown that men are up to nine times more at risk of suffering sudden cardiac death following heartbreak, according to Professor Harding. Not the greatest odds considering that genuine heartbreak will happen to all of us at least once in life.

So, other than becoming celibate, how do you actually avoid it? Is there any way that your once healthy ticker can truly make it through the post-break- up danger zone unscathed?

“If you’re deeply immersed in the relationship, then no,” Dunbar says. “It’s a form of bereavement. It’s like that person dying.”

Harding agrees: “When you see your loved one and your heart races, that’s adrenaline, giving you disturbances in your cardiac rhythm. Your brain and your heart are that closely linked. A break-up will affect your heart. It’s animal instinct, you can’t control it.”

Animal instinct. From gibbons in the Vietnamese rainforest to bee-eater birds in Madagascar, Dunbar explains that bitter break-ups are not as unique to humans as we’d believe.

“Historically, one of the most common reasons for human pairs to separate is failure to reproduce – and that’s the same as what you see in animals. With kittiwakes, a seabird, you see that pairs who fail to reproduce are more unlikely to reconvene the next year. That’s true for a lot of mammals, too. The whole issue is reproduction.”

It’s a black and white view of the matter but it also makes sense. A sadistic consolation from mother nature that we are not unique and avoidance is futile.

“As for love itself, forget all this romantic nonsense,” says Dunbar. “From an evolutionary standpoint, it’s all to do with infanticide risk and harassment by other males – that’s why monogamy involves primates. Females drive this – they look for a hired gun to protect them from harassment by males and limit the risk of infanticide.”

Still, at least the pain is real.