It’s a universal truth that breakups blow. Whether you’re the dumper or the dumpee, the end of a relationship is a far cry from the neurochemical swirl that made you fall in love in the first place. Because we’re a long way from being able to swallow an anti-love drug to get past the pain, other self-help techniques need to be employed. Luckily for the brokenhearted, a team of neuroscientists recently published some scientific advice for dealing with the relationship blues.
In The Journal of Neuroscience, a team of psychologists and cognitive scientists from the University of Colorado Boulder show that placebo treatments aren’t just for medical studies — they can treat emotional pain, too. Testing a placebo drug on people experiencing “social pain” after getting dumped, they discovered that the placebo actually reduced that pain. In other words, faking it until you make it isn’t a terrible idea when it comes to breakups. In fact, if you convince yourself that one (hopefully healthy) thing will dull the heartache, it might actually do the job.
The researchers tested this out by recruiting 40 people who had been dumped within the past six months and asked to bring in a picture of either their ex or a platonic friend. The scientists wanted to know whether looking at photos of their ex would cause pain, and if so, whether they could trick the brain into not feeling that pain.
First, to test whether emotional pain was really pain, each participant looked at a photo of their ex while their brain activity was scanned with an MRI machine. Then, while their brains were still being scanned, varying degrees of heat were applied to participants’ arms, and they rated, on a scale, the amount of pain that they felt. Similar regions of the brain were active when people looked at pictures of their exes and when they experienced physical pain, proving to the researchers that emotional pain triggered comparable neurological activity.
Then came the placebo: Every participant was given a nasal spray, but only half the participants were told that it was a “powerful analgesic effective in reducing emotional pain.” The other half knew it was just bogus. But that didn’t matter — the study showed that the bogus spray did have an effect.
The people who thought they had a special spray to dull the pain were revealed, in subsequent MRI scans, to experience less emotional and physical pain when they looked at pictures of their exes. The placebo also increased activity in the participants’ dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain that controls emotions.
“These findings suggest that placebo treatments reduce emotional distress by altering affective representations in frontal-brainstem systems,” write the authors.
In the past, placebos have proven to effectively convince medical patients that they’re being healed, but there hasn’t been as much evidence of the placebo effect working in social situations. This research, however, demonstrates that placebos can indeed shape emotional experiences. So, if you’re feeling raw after a breakup, take solace in knowing you can placebo your way out of a rut, lowering the chances you’ll get back together with your ex and start the painful cycle all over again.