It’s hard to think straight when you’re broken-hearted, and scientists have now figured out why. Appearing in the journal NeuroImage: Clinical, a new study reveals that the brain can be thrown out of whack following a break-up, resulting in abnormal communication patterns and reduced functional organization.
Unusual brain connectivity and organization is something that is often seen in people who suffer from clinical depression, but little is known about how neural communication is affected by temporary despair, such as that experienced by many people following the end of a romantic relationship. To investigate, the study authors scanned the brains of 69 people who had recently undergone a break-up.
None of the participants had a clinical depression diagnosis, though they did display varying degrees of depressive symptoms due to their present situation. After conducting the scans, the researchers noted that the severity of these symptoms was directly correlated with deficits in the brain’s ability to process information.
The most forlorn subjects displayed pronounced decreases in global integration, which refers to the brain’s capacity to combine and process all the information being generated by its various regions at any given time. It’s this integration that allows us to make sense of the world and develop the appropriate cognitive and behavioral responses to the situations in which we find ourselves, so any impairment in this regard represents a major hindrance in our attempts to navigate life.
In addition, the scans revealed a direct correlation between the severity of depressive symptoms and decreased spatial diversity in the brain. This term denotes the degree of specialization in the brain, with different brain regions performing distinct tasks. As this decreases, the hierarchical nature of connectivity breaks down, resulting in a more chaotic state that reduces cognitive efficiency.
Based on these findings, the study authors conclude that negative life experiences can have a detrimental effect on the brain’s operational competence, and can therefore trigger a decline in mental health even in people without a clinical diagnosis.