The Null Device

People can die from a broken heart

In this pre-Valentine's Day romance-related-article silly season, health experts are claiming that unrequited love is a real illness that can kill.
He said many are "destabilised by falling in love, or suffer on account of their love being unrequited" and this could lead to a suicide attempt. Few studies deal with the "specific problem of lovesickness", he said.

Which sounds like a bit of a cop-out to me; I don't doubt that unrequited love has caused many mental breakdowns and suicides, though I wonder how much of that comes from the biology of the condition and how much comes from the social expectation that, when someone you fancy doesn't fancy you, you're entitled to whine, pout, go all emo and become temporarily unresponsible for your behaviour. For example, during the Victorian era, many women would faint in certain social situations. This was not due to the biology of the female gender being susceptible to sudden consciousness loss, but due to programmed-in social expectation. Could it be that losing one's shit over that one special person in the world who doesn't reciprocate one's passion is a similar case of cultural conditioning?

(Which is not to say that romantic love or sexual attraction is culturally constructed; I don't for a moment entertain the blank-slate theory of human nature. However, it's more than conceivable the expectations of how such urges are expressed, and how much they can affect one's behaviour, are strongly influenced by cultural expectations, and that, as biological and physical causes of behaviours are revealed, they gain more influence as the self-sustaining illusion of the sovereign free will becomes weakened.)

Then again, now that unrequited love is recognised as a bona fide medical condition, perhaps some pharmaceutical company will seize the opportunity and bring out an anti-unrequited-love drug, a sort of Prozac for the heart which quickly and conveniently cures this debilitating ailment, further streamlining the human condition.

There are 11 comments on "People can die from a broken heart":

Posted by: Cosma Tue Feb 8 11:59:59 2005

There's an amusing scene in _The Name of the Rose_ where Eco has his characters discuss the various remedies for love (unrequited or otherwise), as laid down by the greatest medieval medical authorities. The one which sticks in my mind is to have people continually point out all the flaws and defects of the beloved to the lover; old women are recommended as being particularly effective.

Posted by: steff Tue Feb 8 22:37:00 2005

Well, there's a bit of a debate that's been raging and/or in total stasis for some decades now: social construction vs. empiricism, positivism, etc. "Love" is viewed either as a transhistorical human universal or as a cultural invention (in the West in the Middle Ages). INcidentally, Dennis de Rougemont also mentions "love without which can not live" in his [i]Love in the Western World[/i], which, I suppose, is the classic argument of the social constructionists.

Posted by: acb Wed Feb 9 01:15:12 2005

Neuroscience has recently proven that there are biological bases for the phases of the courtship/partnering process, i.e., different neurotransmitters involved at different stages. As such, I don't think anybody can credibly suggest that such behaviour is socially constructed. Chances are organisms have felt intense attraction to other organisms, and powerful bonds to partners, for as long as doing so helped their genes pass themselves on.

Of course, the expectations of how such behaviour is handled socially, what's allowed, not allowed, and mandatory, is a different matter. There are intriguing possibilities, such as whether or not some forms of unrequited love are a short-circuiting of the biology straight into the long-term pair-bonding phase without actually having a partner.

(Does anyone have a copy of Pinker's _The Blank Slate_ on hand? Does unrequited love show up in the list of cross-cultural universals in the appendix?)

Posted by: acb Wed Feb 9 01:17:00 2005

Another intriguing fact to remember: the neurological similarities between romantic love and obsessive-compulsive disorder. It could be that OCD is a misfiring of parts of the mate-selection module of the brain.

Posted by: steff Wed Feb 9 11:03:25 2005

Ok, you take the side with the hard science camp. Which, as far as neurology is concerned, and brain mapping, etc. is not, I think it's fair to claim, fully advanced yet, and contiues to apply working hypotheses. In any case, the specific types of attraction may very well vary greatly btw species, as they may btw "cultures" (hate that term in a context like this). Which is to say that the levels of affect and the accompanying physical sensations may also differ greatly. Similarly, what was called romantic love 500 years ago may have "felt" quite different from what it feels like today. I don't want to start an argument, I'm interested in this.

Posted by: acb Wed Feb 9 11:34:09 2005

Well, along that line we get into qualia, and how do I know that what I see as "red" is the same as what you see as "red" and not just that we use the same word for two entirely different experiences caused by the same stimulus. And there be dragons.

Posted by: Heidi Mon Mar 7 11:08:35 2005

Actually, the fainting in Victorian era times had as much to do with corsets as any preprogrammed notions.

Posted by: acb Mon Mar 7 13:40:11 2005

Then why don't a lot of people faint in goth clubs and fetish clubs?

Posted by: dj Tue Mar 8 02:14:17 2005

Maybe they don't tie them up as tight, or if they do, social convention doesn't expect them not to loosen them when the pain becomes harmful rather than enjoyable.

Posted by: acb Tue Mar 8 10:28:04 2005

I think that social expectations and psychology are a more plausible answer.

Posted by: dr no http:// Fri Mar 25 05:16:08 2005

all this talk of the head and the heart, misses the point in my experience of unrequited love. The real trouble spot is the stomache. There is this constant nagging pain accompanied by hyper excitement especially when close to and talking to the guy I find myself worshiping. I,m convinced that the pain is caused by blocking the normal flow of emotions that results from even a little expression or sharing of strongly felt urges. Much of Chinese medicine concerns itself with releasing blockages in our neural systems which they say accounts for a disease in the blocked area and other points connected by a blocked pathway. Since there can be no real or otherwise meaningful communication with the object of unrequited love about these erotic/romantic feelings, ther is an almost unbearable amount of frustation resulting from the 'Stuffed' emotions. And this Stuffing must surely lead to disease. Being aware of this I had to do someting about it. First ( after a year of this ) I told him how I felt.