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Psychology

Can You Think Your Way Out of a Broken Heart?

“Love would be two animals: a hummingbird and a snake. Both are perfectly untrainable,” said the author Cheryl Strayed in Tiny Beautiful Things.

We’ve all done it—attempted to use sheer intellect and rationality to train, or overcome, heartbreak. The argument could be exceptionally logical, yet we still feel pangs of loneliness, despair, or anger.

When we share the experience with a friend, often they tell us advice that we need to hear—advice that we would give if we weren’t the ones with a broken heart. It works: you begin to feel hopeful, you focus on what you can learn about yourself and relationships, and for just a moment, the pain is dulled. But the moment you rest your head on your pillow, your mind forgets the words of wisdom and tunes into the cries of the heart. Although it hurts, it’s a reminder that you’re alive.

I began to understand the futility of trying to overcome heartbreak with pure logic and rational thought as I read A General Theory of Love, the wonderful book by Thomas Lewis, M.D., Fari Amini, M.D., and Richard Lannon, M.D.

To begin untangling and understanding this joyous and painful chaos we feel throughout our lives, they explain why turning to science to understand the complexities and vastness of human emotions is a helpful beginning. They point out that the systems in the brain that are responsible for intellect and rational thought are different than the systems responsible for emotion, “creating the chasm between them in human minds and lives. The same rift makes the mysteries of love difficult for people to penetrate, despite an earnest desire to do so.”

The authors continue:

Emotional experience, in all its resplendent complexity, cannot emerge ex vacuo: it must originate in dynamic neural systems humming with physiological machinations as specific and patterned as they are intricate. Because it is part of the physical universe, love has to be lawful. Like the rest of the world, it is governed and described by principles we can discover but cannot change.

Love, after all, is an emotion, and emotions begin and end in the brain. The authors describe why emotions are useful and how they play out in our lives:

Exhilaration, longing, grief, loyalty, fury, love—they are the opalescent pigments that gild our lives with vibrancy and meaning. . . . Fascination, passion, and devotion draw us toward compelling people and situations, while fear, shame, guilt, and disgust repel us from others. Even the most desiccated neocortical abstractions pulse with an emotional core. Greed and ambition run beneath the surface of economics; vengefulness and reverence under the veneer of justice. In all cases, emotions are humanity’s motivator and its omnipresent guide.

[…]

Emotion is the messenger of love; it is the vehicle that carries every signal from one brimming heart to another.

Life would be easier if we could talk ourselves out of heartbreak, but enough failed attempts should make us question the power of intelligence over emotions.

Our brain is comprised of different parts, all working in harmony. But the older part of the brain—the reptilian brain, also known as the limbic system—is responsible for emotions like anger, love, revenge, and sex. These are primal emotions that affect both humans and animals, and as we’ve learned, emotions are the lifeblood for all of our behaviors. The only difference between us and animals is the recently evolved parts of our brain—the mid-brain, top layer, and frontal lobe—that act as an executive officer, taking suggestions from all other parts of the brain to help its calculations and reasoning.

Psychologist Daniel Kahneman coined it as System 1 and System 2; author Jonathan Haidt described it as the Rider and the Elephant.

The analogy is simple: System 1/the Elephant is the emotional half; System 2/the Rider holds the reigns, but it’s small compared to the giant Elephant. When we’re heartbroken, it’s the Elephant that goes haywire, stomping its feet and thrashing around. The Rider, trying hard not to fall off, holds the reigns and attempts to control the Elephant. When change fails—when we remain in our heartbreak and feel like we’ll never be happy again—it’s because the Rider within us failed to guide the Elephant on the right path.

When we finally give in and text that person we miss—even though we know we shouldn’t be giving in—it’s the Elephant seeking short-term pleasure. It’s screaming, Love me, damnit. When we stop ourselves, it’s because we’ve acknowledged our sadness and guided that emotion properly with the help of rational, long-term thinking that allows us to focus on the possibilities of the future.

I recently realized the story I was telling myself after heartbreak. The narrative went like this: I am someone who is deeply self-aware and understands human nature. In most areas of my life, I can calm my emotions and know what’s best for me in the long term because I know how to critically think about things. But when it comes to falling in love or wanting to be loved, all of that melts away. I am a child, unable to control my desires, giving in to every whim, which exposes my vulnerabilities and insecurities. I chase, give in too easily, and expect my love to be reciprocated. This is why I avoid commitments.

When I spoke this out loud to a few friends, all of them had the same reaction: Check yourself, Paul, because that’s what everybody feels. I thought that by naming my need and talking myself through my heartbreak, I was rising above the pain and I’d be able to reason my way out of the hurt.

As the French mathematician Blaise Pascal wrote, “The heart has its reason whereof Reason knows nothing.” Although I had a pristine understanding of my own needs and accepted this heartbreak for what it was, the combined wisdom of poets and my friends had no match for the occasional pangs of sadness that crept throughout the crevices of my day. One minute I’m in the flow of writing an essay, and another minute my mind is completely where it doesn’t want to be, like a child forced to go to the grocery store with her parents.

What cured the heartbreak—as it does with everything else in life—was time, but this time I was equipped with an understanding, a digestion of the experience, that made the ride much smoother had I not talked it out or named my struggle.

A General Theory of Love is a must-read—a beautiful collection of insights from various domains like science, psychology, the arts, and philosophy. Beyond the surface treatment of love, the book explores its every conceivable face, like studying a beautiful diamond.

As Jonathan Haidt wrote beautifully in The Happiness Hypothesis,

If you are in passionate love and want to celebrate your passion, read poetry. If your ardor has calmed and you want to understand your evolving relationship, read psychology. But if you have just ended a relationship and would like to believe you are better off without love, read philosophy.

— PAUL JUN