Journal of Neurophysiology

Reward, Addiction, and Emotion Regulation Systems Associated With Rejection in Love

Helen E. Fisher, Lucy L. Brown, Arthur Aron, Greg Strong, Debra Mashek


Romantic rejection causes a profound sense of loss and negative affect. It can induce clinical depression and in extreme cases lead to suicide and/or homicide. To begin to identify the neural systems associated with this natural loss state, we used functional magnetic resonance imaging to study 10 women and 5 men who had recently been rejected by a partner but reported they were still intensely “in love.” Participants alternately viewed a photograph of their rejecting beloved and a photograph of a familiar, individual, interspersed with a distraction-attention task. Their responses while looking at their rejecter included love, despair, good, and bad memories, and wondering why this happened. Activation specific to the image of the beloved occurred in areas associated with gains and losses, craving and emotion regulation and included the ventral tegmental area (VTA) bilaterally, ventral striatum, medial and lateral orbitofrontal/prefrontal cortex, and cingulate gyrus. Compared with data from happily-in-love individuals, the regional VTA activation suggests that mesolimbic reward/survival systems are involved in romantic passion regardless of whether one is happily or unhappily in love. Forebrain activations associated with motivational relevance, gain/loss, cocaine craving, addiction, and emotion regulation suggest that higher-order systems subject to experience and learning also may mediate the rejection reaction. The results show activation of reward systems, previously identified by monetary stimuli, in a natural, endogenous, negative emotion state. Activation of areas involved in cocaine addiction may help explain the obsessive behaviors associated with rejection in love.

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