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Time – and brain chemistry – heal all wounds

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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I know I’m not physically hurt. Though it feels like I’ve been kicked in the stomach with steel-toed boots, my abdomen isn’t bruised. Spiking cortisol levels are causing my muscles to tense and diverting blood away from my gut, leading to this twisting, gnawing agony that I cannot stop thinking about. I can’t stop crying. I can’t move. I just stare at the ceiling, wondering when, if ever, this pain is going to go away.

It doesn’t matter that my injuries are emotional. The term heartache isn’t a metaphor: emotional wounds literally hurt. The exact same parts of the brain that light up when we’re in physical pain go haywire when we experience rejection. As far as our neurons are concerned, emotional distress is physical trauma.

Evolutionary biologists would say that it’s not surprising that our emotions have hijacked the pain system. As social creatures, mammals are dependent from birth upon others. We must forge and maintain relationships to survive and pass on our genes. Pain is a strong motivator; it is the primary way for our bodies tell us that something is wrong and needs to be fixed. Our intense aversion to pain causes us to instantly change behavior to ensure we don’t hurt anymore. Since the need to maintain social bonds is crucial to mammalian survival, experiencing pain when they are threatened is an adaptive way to prevent the potential danger of being alone.

Of course, being able to evolutionarily rationalize this feeling doesn’t make it go away.

I lie flattened, like the weight of his words has literally crushed me. I need to do something, anything to lessen this ache. The thought crosses my mind to self medicate, but I quickly decide against that. Mild analgesics like ibuprofen would be useless, as they act peripherally, targeting the pain nerves which send signals to the brain. In this case, it is my brain that is causing the pain. I would have to take something different, like an opioid, which depresses the central nervous system and thus inhibits the brain’s ability to feel. Tempting as that might be, painkillers are an easy – and dangerous – way out. No, I need to deal with this some other way.

Slowly, I sit up and grab the guitar at the foot of my bed.

Where music comes from, or even why we like and create music, is still a mystery. What we do know is that it has a powerful effect on our brains. Music evokes strong emotions and changes how we perceive the world around us. Simply listening to music causes the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter linked to the brain’s reward system and feelings of happiness. But even more impressive is its effect on pain. Multiple studies have shown that listening to music alters our perception of painful stimuli and strengthens feelings of control. People are able to tolerate pain for longer periods of time when listening to music, and will even rate the severity of the sensation as lower, suggesting that something so simple as a melody has a direct effect on our neural pathways.

So, too, does self expression. Expressive writing about traumatic, stressful or emotional events is more than just a way to let out emotion – college students told to write about their most upsetting moments, for example, were found to be in remarkably better health four months later than their counterparts who wrote on frivolous topics. These positive results of self-expression are amplified when the product is shared with others. While negative emotions may have commandeered our pain response, art has tapped into the neurochemical pathways of happiness and healing.

So, I begin to write. At first, it is just a jumble of chords and words, haphazardly strung together. But, slowly, I edit and rewrite, weaving my emotions into lyrics. I play it over and over, honing the phrasing, perfecting the sound. Eventually, it begins to resemble a song:

    (lyrics)

The rush of dopamine loosens the knot in my stomach ever so slightly. For now, the agony is dulled. Still, I can’t help but think that I’m never going to really feel better – that the memory of this moment will be seared into my brain, and a mental scar will always be there, torturing me with this intense feeling of loss.

Scientifically, I know I’m wrong. As I close my eyes, I am comforted by the thought that the human brain, though capable of processing and storing ridiculous amounts of information, is flawed. The permanence of memory is an illusion. My memory of this moment will weaken over time. It will be altered by future experiences, until what I envision when I try to recall it will be only a faint reflection of what I actually feel. Eventually, this pain won’t overwhelm me, and I will finally be able to let go.

Christie Wilcox About the Author: Christie Wilcox is a science writer and blogger who moonlights as a PhD student in Cell and Molecular Biology at the University of Hawaii. Follow on Google+. Follow on Twitter @NerdyChristie.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. joshuazucker 2:15 pm 10/24/2011

    Wow. I’ve always enjoyed your science writing, and this is a brilliant piece of science writing indeed. But beyond that, it’s a beautiful way to tell an intensely personal story. Thanks for sharing it with us.

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  2. 2. JNColeman 4:03 pm 10/24/2011

    The physicality of the pain of heartbreak is all too clear to those of us who have experienced it, and your explanation of its physiology and evolutionary roots is quite excellent.

    Lovely song, too.

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  3. 3. Aur_ora 5:21 pm 10/24/2011

    I’m in a place where I can’t listen to the song right now (looking forward to listening to it later), but I had to say right away that this is just a wonderful example of good writing – I hope writing the post itself helped nudge the healing process along, too.

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  4. 4. Patrick Clarkin 8:42 pm 10/24/2011

    I also enjoyed this very much. We are finite emotional creatures, but empiricism helps us to understand where our weak points are, and possibly overcome them.

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  5. 5. all4kindness2all 11:27 pm 10/24/2011

    Lovely post and song and how you blend science into life .. yet, I think the resilience of youth is also from inexperience.

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  6. 6. gargoylefun 12:17 am 10/25/2011

    When I am depressed from heartache, I can not listen to music at all. It evokes too much emotion and sends me over the edge.
    When I lost the love of my life I didn’t listen to any music for about a year. And the day I felt like and was able to listen to music was when I new I was finally past it.

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  7. 7. Scienceangela 7:21 am 10/25/2011

    Time and brain chemistry heal all wounds – just about but not quite! Some events such as the death of a child are never totally healed and as a result many years later you still see the tears in the mother’s eyes.

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  8. 8. rjvg50 5:54 pm 10/25/2011

    I have been in agony for two weeks following a job interview that may not materialize. Thanks for the cogent dissection of my pain.

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  9. 9. Lotharloo 11:05 pm 10/26/2011

    Thank you for sharing this. Your writing is really magical. I’m addicted to many science blogs but this one stands out. Thanks a lot.

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  10. 10. oodoodanoo 7:39 pm 10/29/2011

    Strictly speaking, not all mammals are social animals. Wolverines, for example, aren’t. All mammals may be dependent on their mothers, but that’s a period of time when they’re too undeveloped to know that.

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  11. 11. all4kindness2all 8:16 pm 10/29/2011

    I don’t think people let go. I think we find ourselves elsewhere (sometimes by our own actions, other times we are lucky, blessed or whatever), where the relevance diminishes and we believe we have let go.

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  12. 12. mseward 12:44 am 10/30/2011

    I, as most of us, have been through what you speak of. I also happened to have been through that tonight. But while you speak of knots in your stomach and tears in your eyes, I feel a prevailing numbness that my reason cannot entirely account for. And so I was hoping you could shine some biological light on this phenomenon… :)

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  13. 13. catglickman 6:38 pm 11/2/2011

    I went through this 31 years ago. It still hurts. Some things you don’t get over – they change you.

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  14. 14. Christie Wilcox in reply to Christie Wilcox 4:15 pm 11/9/2011

    Thanks to all of you who have commented on this post (here and on social media platforms) – it was a very hard one to write, and it really means a lot to me that it has reached so many of you.

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  15. 15. guybrush115 7:32 am 11/20/2011

    The evolution made us have the ability to learn from our mistakes. Life must go on.

    Actually, taking painkillers can relieves the pain from rejection because some areas in the brain are activated in both conditions.

    Thanks for sharing!

    Link to this
  16. 16. Chemin10 1:29 am 12/14/2011

    Excellent

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