Forty men and women, aged 18 to 28, walked into a lab, all suffering from broken hearts. Their emotional pain was measured using neural imaging of their brains. Then they were handed a nasal spray. Two squirts in each nostril, half of them were told, will ease your pain.
Past studies have shown that placebos can ease physical pain and aid with depression, while also changing neural activity in the brain. The placebo effect had never before been tested against the deep sting of romantic rejection.
Leonie Koban, a researcher at the University of Colorado’s Institute of Cognitive Science, recently lead-authored a paper based on the experiment, conducted several years ago, in the Journal of Neuroscience. Koban and her team wanted to examine the effects of a placebo on the pain of social rejection, a category whose injuries run from the mild to traumatic, with breakups usually falling somewhere between the two extremes.
In the experiment, study participants—still suffering after a breakup in the preceding six months—were asked to bring the lab photos of their ex-partners, and a picture of a friend with whom they had experienced positive events. As an fMRI machine captured images of the subjects’ brains, they looked at the photos of the former partner, and then of the friend. Separately, they were also subjected to the mild pain of a burning sensation (from a temperature-controlled heated device) on a forearm. The brain scans showed that the pain of the heat and that of the ex-partner’s memory burned the same way in the brain, lighting up similar areas, whereas the photo of a friend did not elicit the same response.
Everyone was then asked to use a nasal spray before having their brains scanned once more. Half of the participants were told that the mist was a “powerful analgesic that is also effective in reducing emotional pain,” according to the study. The control group was told that the spray helped scientists read the fMRI readings more accurately. In reality, the squirt was a simple saline spray that would do neither.
“We found that people who were treated with the placebo treatment and expected to have less emotional pain definitely felt a lot better,” Koban reports. The placebo changed how they felt subjectively, as measured by self-reported surveys, but it also substantially altered their actual brain activity. Scientists noted less activity in the areas of the brain associated with social rejection. Meanwhile, what’s called the periaqueductal gray, or PAG, in the midbrain, was popping—just as it would when regulating pain with opioid and dopamine.
There are real-world implications for this research. The end of a romance can be a dangerous period: The jolt can sometimes trigger physiological responses such as stress-related inflammation, or drive a person to self-medicate with drugs or alcohol, raising the risk of developing an addiction. Post-breakup, a person is 20 times more likely to develop depression, compared with the general population, Koban explains.
The scientists were not suggesting we use placebos to rebuild our collapsed self-esteem after being romantically rejected. Rather, says Koban, the study illustrates that the brain can actually heal itself after emotional bang-ups, including the end of a relationship.
She hopes her work will help people understand that the pain of a heartbreak is real (even if neither science nor poetry can explain what it is), but there’s an intrinsic comforting system available to us, and it’s activated by one’s own mind. “The healing will take time, but it will happen, as long as they have hope,” she says, “and the more people are open to positive experiences and positive improvements, the faster they will get better.”
Other recent, intriguing findings in the science of heartbreak have pointed to journal-writing as possibly the most efficient method for treating love’s wounds. The goal should be to recover one’s sense of self, and redefine a personal identity separate from that of the missing romantic partner, say psychologists.
Koban says that any way of caring for your mental state—whether writing, exercising, or talking it through with friends—might work. The key is believing in the remedy.