EPSTEIN: Heartbreak and the Neuropsychology of Memory

Breakups, particularly painful ones, are difficult to forget. After having a broken heart, many people believe they will never get over it. But then, somehow, they eventually start thinking about their previous partner less and less, and all the negative feelings associated with the heartbreak slowly fade over time. I have been stunned by how strong the memories of these emotional events can be and equally stunned by how much weaker they become as time passes.

In the film “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” after a couple goes through a tough breakup, they both decide to undergo a medical procedure that erases all memories of the relationship from their minds. I will avoid giving away the entire plot, but essentially the moral is that memories are worth keeping, giving a nod to the adage, “It is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.” I thought back to this movie after I went through a bad breakup myself. Throughout the aftermath I found hope in the promise that time heals all wounds, but for months I still woke up each day feeling like it had just happened. I kept thinking back to this movie and came to the conclusion that its ending was wrong — I would have loved to erase the entire memory of my former relationship.

The recollection of a breakup would be classified as an episodic memory, which is our longterm memory of personal experiences and events. This type of memory is stored throughout the brain, but its formation is connected to several key structures, one of which is the amygdala. The amygdala is important for our memories of breakups because of its role in our processing of emotion. Your emotional memories would not exist without it, as there would be no feelings attached to your recollection of what happened.

When your amygdala processes a highly emotional event, it sends signals to your attentional networks, which is why an event like a breakup attracts a great deal of our attention. The more you pay attention to something, the more likely it is to be processed and converted into longterm memory. In short, emotional arousal enhances your memory retention of an event. I believe that this is why I was able to recall the most emotional events surrounding my breakup in great detail long after they happened. And if I had to guess, I would say it is part of why those characters in “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” were so keen on wiping out those painful memories.

But now, many months later, I am starting to feel differently about my breakup as I have finally found time to do some healing. I can go days or weeks without thinking about what happened, and thinking about it does not affect me the way it used to. And I believe that I have memory to thank for this healing.

Another major player in memory formation is the hippocampus, the part of the brain involved in consolidating, or strengthening, short-term memories to turn them into longterm ones. A relatively new theory of memory asserts that neurogenesis, the growth of new neurons, in the hippocampus is the basis of both memory creation and forgetting. Because of neurogenesis, the hippocampus is constantly updating, getting rid of older memories to make room for new ones. There is evidence for this theory in studies of clinical depression, because depression is often associated with forgetting and antidepressants appear to boost neurogenesis. So over time, neurogenesis weakens our older memories, which can be both helpful and inconvenient. Although it may be annoying to forget some past events, the ability to forget the ones that torment you can be advantageous.

Some people do not have this advantage. People with an extremely rare condition called “highly superior autobiographical memory” have the ability to remember every single event in their lives from a certain date in their childhood onward. If you ask them about an event they can remember the exact date, the weather and what they ate for lunch that day — and they can visualize it as vividly as if it happened yesterday.

HSAM is both a blessing and a curse. It is easy to imagine how having an incredible memory could be convenient, but there is the flip side of not being able to forget your darkest memories. One woman recounted how she can still remember a breakup from years ago as if it had just happened, which means that she has to emotionally relive it each time the memory resurfaces. Interestingly enough, though this may only be a coincidence, four out of five of the adults interviewed were not in a relationship.

So perhaps we have memory to both blame and thank for the way we handle breakups. While the amygdala helps make those painful emotional memories so vivid, neurogenesis in the hippocampus gives us the blessing of forgetting them. So next time you wonder if you will ever recover from heartbreak, try to think about your brain helping you out by slowly weakening those memories to make room for memories of your next great relationship — unless you have HSAM, that is.

 

Zoe Epstein is a senior in the College. This is the final installment of Dating Nerd

Have a reaction to this article? Write a letter to the editor.

One Comment

  1. Bruce Thomson says:

    Interesting and useful article, Zoe.
    I’m currently reading about oxytocin, the bonding hormone (ebook is ‘The Moral Molecule’ by Paul Zak)

    Is suspect the possibility of ‘complete, immediate and satisfying’ recovery from a breakup may be available via (non-pharmaceutical) replacement of the deficiency of oxytocin. For example, if the sufferer finds themself in circumstances where they are ‘usefully’ interacting with, enjoyably being touched and squeezed by various other people (and even praised and loved virtually via computer or phone), the pressure sensors of their body will deliver ample oxytocin to eliminate all pain of loss of the other ‘supplier’ of oxytocin.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>