Could Brain Training Help Mend A Broken Heart?

The frontal lobe could benefit from training, in a similar way that muscles are strengthened by going to the gym. Makistock/Sutterstock

Training your brain using simple online activities might help alleviate the pain of a broken heart. By using computerized tests, one neuroscientist thinks you may be able to reprogram your brain to stop it from dwelling on a particularly hard break-up and prevent the ever-present danger of sending drunken texts or awkward voicemails.

The suggestion is that of Professor Barbara Sahakian, from the University of Cambridge, who studies the neural basis of emotional and behavioral dysfunction. Normally, this focuses on trying to treat people with compulsive behaviors and finding ways in which they can strengthen their self-control by undertaking simple tasks given to them on a computer. However, she has suggested that these same activities could also be co-opted to help people deal with emotional break-ups.  

The computerized tests sound incredibly simple: respond to flashing left or right arrows on the screen and then stop when a buzzer sounds. This is thought to help strengthen the prefrontal cortex, which is a region of the brain associated with executive functions and inhibitory control. Sahakian says that this part of the brain can be exercised in a similar way to muscles, boosting its ability to respond to emotional stress.

“The frontal lobes exert control in many different situations, whether in a brain-training task or in stopping people ruminating on lost love,” Professor Sahakian told The Guardian. “It’s like exercising a muscle and it might stop someone who is heartbroken from repeatedly texting their ex-partner. The brain would have the tools to put a stop to that.”

Sometimes obssessive behavior can be a benefit, such as when it comes to situations where strong feelings are needed (ie. relationships and children). However, problems arise when these relationships break down and we react in maladaptive ways.

Sahakian thinks it's possible that the prefrontal cortex can be trained, in order to help people restrain the impulsive part of their brain from dwelling on the broken relationship or sending texts in an agitated state. This may take time and be somewhat difficult to achieve, especially in the thralls of heartbreak, but it could help people train their brain to get through the situation and onto the other side. Until it has been tried and tested, though, it remains up for debate.

[H/T: The Guardian]

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