What Is the Science Behind Heartbreak?
This Week on the Book Dreams Podcast
Why, exactly, do we feel so shattered when someone we love leaves us? What is the science behind the physical changes we experience during heartbreak, such as weight loss and anxiety, and why do so many of us stop behaving rationally?
In this episode of Book Dreams, we talk with acclaimed science writer Florence Williams about her latest book, Heartbreak: A Personal and Scientific Journey, in which she explores questions like these within the framework of a heartbreak of her own and its aftermath. In her conversation with Julie and Eve, Florence discusses the brain science behind our responses to this kind of loss; the potential impact of loneliness and feelings of abandonment on our immune systems; why some of us bounce back from heartbreak faster than others; what advice she gives to everyone struggling to recover from heartbreak; and so much more.
From the episode:
Julie Sternberg: One step you chose as you struggled to recover was taking psychedelics. Why?
Florence Williams: I spent quite a bit of time in the book talking about the power of awe, A-W-E. At one point early on, I met with a psychologist who said, “We think that the people who are the most resilient out of heartbreak or other traumatic life events are people who are open as a personality trait. People who are open to beauty, open to awe, actually, specifically, people who get goosebumps, for example, when they hear a symphony or when they see a beautiful piece of artwork or read a poem.
And she said, “Beyond that, we actually think you can move the needle on that personality trait. It’s one of the few personality traits you can sort of change. You can teach yourself to become more open to beauty.” And I thought, Okay, that’s my plan. That’s gonna be what I’m gonna do.
And at one point, I met with a psychologist, his name’s Dacher Keltner. He’s kind of the awe dude at the University of California, Berkeley. And I said, “Look, you know, should I try mushrooms, should I try psychedelics? Is that gonna kind of shortcut me into awe?” And he said, “Definitely, you definitely should try it.” I had never done that before, but I felt like I needed some kind of desperate measures. I needed really big technicolor awe. And so I went for it.
Julie Sternberg: What was it like, and was it useful?
Florence Williams: You know, it was for me, and it’s gonna be different for other people. I’m careful about kind of suggesting this for everyone. There are a lot of factors that go into it, including, you know, if you’re on other medications and what your various health conditions are and so on. For me, it was actually very helpful. I did experience awe. I had a sort of “mystical experience.” And I know this because I took a questionnaire in—
Florence Williams: —in mystical experiences. Under the influence of psilocybin, I definitely felt that I was part of the universe. I felt like we were all connected. I felt this sort of massive wave of love. I felt like I was kind of flying high above the earth. You know, I pictured myself as a moon at one point. I saw sardines in the sky that struck me as kind of like angels, sort of secular version of religion. It was a really powerful experience. And we know from some of the science, looking at psychedelics and, for example, people who are undergoing terminal illness that under the influence of these substances, they feel less afraid.
And that’s what happened to me. Fear had been driving so much of my anxiety in the wake of my divorce and driving the immune system problems that I was having. Having this experience and feeling less afraid of my future was, to me, very, very powerful and very helpful. And actually that effect has lasted. I’m like, “You know what? I’m gonna be okay.”
A contributing editor at Outside magazine, Florence Williams is the author of Breasts, winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and The Nature Fix. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, National Geographic, and many other outlets. She lives in Washington, DC.
Book Dreams uses books to explore topics we can’t stop thinking about. Hosted by Julie Sternberg and Eve Yohalem, Book Dreams releases new episodes every Thursday. Visit our website for more about the show: www.bookdreamspodcast.com.