No matter the length of the relationship, a breakup is not harmful to mental health. Stress, mental burden, sadness…the emotions felt after this event are complex and often negative. This negativity would have a strong effect on the brain, which seeks to protect itself.
Love (and dopamine) is found in voles
Voles are a monogamous rodent species, meaning they only have one partner at a time. According to researchers, they get a boost of dopamine when they see their partner again after searching for them. However, during a long separation, the production of the happiness hormone decreases.
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For Dr. Zoe Donaldson, a behavioral neuroscientist at the University of Colorado Boulder and lead author of the study, it's actually a mechanism the brain puts in place to recover from a kind of “breakup.” In fact, after this drop in dopamine, the voles are able to return in search of a new partner. Behavior that he will not perform when the separation is not long enough, so the cause-and-effect link between reunion and dopamine is not weakened.
away from the eye away from the heart
To support this hypothesis, the team of scientists decided to conduct a series of experiments where voles could choose between reuniting with their former partner or meeting an unknown mouse. Vols released more dopamine when they chose to reunite with their “ex” mate. According to Zoe Donaldson, it would be more beneficial for rodents to “Get together with a partner instead of going out with a stranger“.
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However, after four weeks of separation (which is a very long period for rodents), this increase in dopamine was no longer present. According to the researchers, this can be explained by the decreased value of the bond between old “pairs” of voles.
The difficult stage of separation and mourning: How science mends hearts
If the observations gathered at the end of this experiment also apply to humans, this could have a powerful neurological and psychoscientific impact. In fact, according to Zoe Donaldson, this dopamine signal is also essential in humans to foster relationships. “This means that doing things that help maintain this strong signal has important effects on relationship satisfaction“, according to the researcher.
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In addition, these observations can also contribute to a better understanding of the process of successive stages of mourning, especially for individuals who have more difficulty grieving. “It's possible that for these people, their partner's dopamine signal maladapts after a loss, essentially preventing them from processing the loss.” Zoe Donaldson explains.
The main goal of future neuroscientists' research in this area will be to help people with grief disorder for a long time.
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