04/04/2010 11:54 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Breaking Up Is Hard to Do - The Heart of the Matter

I found myself consoling a friend who recently had his divorce finalized after his wife had left him. I felt disheartened to see his normally happy and engaged demeanor become numb and desensitized. "I've been like this for the past eight months," he told me. His situation reminded me a difficult break-up I experienced in college that led me to explore social relationships and the mind.

Experientially the day before a breakup and the day just after a break-up feel very different. One moment life is full of meaning and purpose, and in an instant everything changes. We lose our bearings and nothing makes sense anymore. The story of a future together projected in our mind becomes replaced with a future full of uncertainty and we fear the unknown. Some people get physically sick. Elisabeth Edwards described that she vomited immediately after learning of her husband's infidelity.

I recalled a line of inquiry that helped me gain perspective during the difficult breakup that I experienced in college (please keep in mind that I also studied engineering).

What really happens when the stories that we live by change? If a loved one dies, our story changes to reflect a material loss. However when two people end a relationship, what other than the story actually changes?

From a material perspective, not much has changed. Everything is still pretty much as before. At first thought, it would seem that the only difference is that perhaps some brain cells in your head and in the head of your ex-significant-other are now wired differently. Neural connections made during the relationship have perhaps become undone, or maybe a new over-riding connection is made.

New investigations into brain imaging and social display behaviors reveal that our brains are wired for social engagement. Infants recognize their mother within the first days of life and recognize their voice while still in the womb. Research into vision suggests that there are parts of the brain specifically for identify faces, and that the regions associated with emotions are involved in the identification process.

This is evidenced in a condition known as Capgras Delusion that afflicts patients with damaged connections between the visual and emotional centers. People suffering from Capgras Delusion recognize loved ones, but don't feel the emotions. To explain their experience, they make up outlandish stories such as "my mom is an impostor" or "my dad has been replaced by aliens." The facial expression of emotions also seems to be biological in origin.

Many bloggers on this site have already written about the discovery of mirror neurons that fire whether one performs an action or sees someone else performing that action. These cells only serve to support social relationships and many believe that they play a role in explaining how empathy works. From an early age, our brains become programmed through our relationships with others. Play, theater, arts, and culture reinforce this programming in our society.

Those familiar with psychology and attachment theory understand that early behavior patterns affect subsequent relationships. Studies based upon the "Infant Strange Situation," a procedure to classify early attachment relationships between an infant and their caregiver, show that early secure attachments lead to more fulfilling adult relationships.

Psychologists have also long recognized that repressed or unresolved feelings towards one individual are commonly transferred to others, often times unconsciously. Negative responses conditioned by our parents as we develop our own world-view haunt our relationship with our spouse(s), and perpetuate to our children. We become a link within a chain.

Failed relationships become even more painful as they represent another layer of painful memories, feelings of loneliness, and regret. Rather than addressing the internal feelings echoing from our past, people often externalize the situation by focusing on the story and the drama. They did this to me. They made me do it.

Until we bring awareness to the underlying situation, we will continue to act from our unconscious programming. Developing emotional intelligence and an awareness of the body are the first steps towards bringing about change. When we feel angry or sad, our breathing changes. With fear, our breathing stops. Our emotions are experienced in our body. Where in the body are these emotions experienced? What is the quality of the experience?

Painful breakups serve to facilitate reflection and introspection. While exploring the relationship between our stories and the corresponding experiences in our body, negative feelings may arise like ghosts haunting us from our past. When was the last time we felt like this? What was that story?

Dispelling these ghosts requires acceptance and true forgiveness. Personally, I find this sentiment very eloquently stated both musically and lyrically in Don Henley's song, "The Heart of the Matter." Studies of the brain show that neurons continue to add and remove connections throughout our lives. It's never too late.

Implausible at the time, I survived my break-up in college and learned a lot about myself in the process. Ten years later, I met my wife. We are expecting a fourth child later this month. I still maintain a friendship with my "ex" from college. We both learned a lot from each other through our relationship and are both happily married. There is a saying that whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger. With acceptance and forgiveness, whatever doesn't kill you can also make you wiser.

For those interested in play, culture, and relationship, as they relate to neuroscience and consciousness, Charles Whitehead who operates the Social Mirrors website is organizing a daylong conference on Social Approaches to Consciousness on June 9th and a hands-on workshop on June 10th in Hong Kong as part of the Asia Consciousness Festival. For more information about the Festival, check out the festival site.