Getting Over Your Ex, With Science

[Adam Cole] This is the brain of Dessa. She’s a rapper and a singer from Minneapolis, Minn. [Dessa] ♫ They say that your heart is the size of your fist I can tell you firsthand I know how that glove fits. ♫ [Cole] Once, she fell in love with a guy, but they broke up, and for years she couldn’t get over her feelings for him. [Dessa] ♫ But what if I could cure me of you. ♫ [Cole] This is the story of how Dessa went searching for the source of love in her brain and then turned to the frontiers of neuroscience
to try and heal a broken heart. [Dessa] As anybody who’s experienced a really bad breakup knows, not only are you in pain, but you are like saddened by what would be the video camera feed of yourself, you know? So there was definitely this moment in, like, an empty parking lot of a sushi buffet and I see dude’s number flash on my phone, right? We’re not really on speaking terms and I answer it and we talk and I realize that maybe I had hoped that he was gonna, I dunno, like pull up beside me and propose like, and I knew how irrational that was. So I was frustrated not only with the pain
but with like “how come I’m so stuck?” You get advice from your friends or from stupid grocery store magazines on how breakups are best accomplished, right? Time. Distance. Friendships. Whiskey. [Cole] But none of that seemed to work. And Dessa was pretty unhappy. [Dessa] I wasn’t sure how to shut it off. [Cole]Then, one day, she came across this talk by a biological anthropologist [Dessa] Dr. Helen Fisher. [Dr. Helen Fisher] I and my colleagues have put 37 people who were madly in love into a functional MRI brain scanner. [Cole] Functional MRI, or fMRI, can look inside your brain and indirectly measure blood flow. The areas that are most active get the most blood and that helped Fisher figure out which parts are involved in romantic love. A major player is the VTA. It’s associated with wanting… [Fisher]…with motivation, with focus and with craving. Romantic love is an obsession. You can’t stop thinking about another human being. Somebody is camping in your head. [Cole] It hadn’t occurred to Dessa that she might actually observe physical evidence of love and she thought: [Dessa] Maybe if I could find the love in my brain I could figure out how to get it out. [Cole] So she put out a call. [Dessa] Hey does anybody want to trade access to an fMRI machine for backstage passes and whiskey? [Cole] She managed to barter her way into a fMRI machine at the University of Minnesota. It scanned her brain while she was looking at a picture of a platonic acquaintance and then again when she was looking at her ex. Look right here at the VTA. It lit up when she saw her ex, but not when she saw that other guy. [Dessa] That meant … we’d captured it. We had a snapshot of love. [Dessa] I thought the next step would be to try to intervene. To say “OK, well is it possible to change
that pattern of behavior in my brain?” [Cole] So Dessa turned to Penijean Gracefire, a mental
health clinician who uses a therapy called “EEG neurofeedback.” Here’s the basic idea of neurofeedback: If
you can get an insight into your own brain’s activity you can learn how to change it. In EEG neurofeedback, a cap full of electrical leads detects brain waves — electromagnetic signals created by firing neurons. It’s a way for Dessa to track her brain activity. She wants to change that activity — to get
over her romantic fixation. So during this session when her brain activity shifts, she’ll hear a ping. Getting this feedback is supposed to help
her retrain her brain to get out of that rut of love and longing. Could this actually work? Well, this type of therapy has been used to try and treat all kinds of mental health issues, but there isn’t a lot of rigorous research
to support it. Still, neurofeedback is starting to intrigue more scientists. They’re investigating if it can be used to
help people with anxiety, depression, and ADHD. [Dr. Shabnam Hakimi] We are interested in seeing if people can learn to motivate themselves. [Cole] Dr. Hakimi says people with ADHD often have trouble motivating themselves to complete tasks. Researchers wondered if neurofeedback could help. They put people in this fMRI , machine and feedback, displayed as this thermometer, showed them if activity in a brain region associated with motivation was increasing, or decreasing. By the end of their training, participants
had successfully learned to crank up this region even without the feedback. That doesn’t necessarily mean they’d be able to motivate themselves out in the real world, but it’s a start. And Dr. Hakimi says she noticed another outcome
of this study — participants would say things like: [Hakimi] I can’t believe I saw what my brain was doing. I never connected that my brain was connected
to what I was thinking about. [Cole] That change in perspective gave them a sense of distance from and power over their mental health. And that was true for Dessa, too. [Dessa] It was arresting to somehow see this evidence of it that existed outside of me now. [Cole] After 9 EEG neurofeedback sessions she went in for another fMRI and lo and behold, her VTA had gone quiet. [Dessa] It was exciting to see this dramatic change really fast. In my brain, that was evidenced by a marked change subjectively — meaning I felt different. [Cole] And when she saw her ex… [Dessa] It wasn’t the case that I was like: “Hey, I’m Dessa I’m sorry I didn’t catch your name.” But I know that before I’d felt like I was really under the thumb of a fixation and a compulsion. And now it feels like those feelings have been scaled down. [Cole] Is this proof that neurofeedback can mend a broken heart? Dessa is the first to say “no.” [Dessa] I’m a sample size of one. So it might be that neurofeedback is a great way to help people who are really struggling with like long, useless, stupid, romantic feelings. [Cole] Or, it could be that she explained her project so many times she went through a kind of talk therapy. Or maybe neurofeedback simply planted the idea that our emotions are grounded in a physical organ, one that we can influence. And perhaps that idea is powerful enough to
change our minds and help us live happier lives. [Dessa] I’ve written a bunch of sad rap bangers. Y’know I’d like to also write other kinds of songs. ♫ [Cole] Subscribe to Skunk Bear and please take our
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