Ginette Paris begins her provocative new book, Heartbreak: New Approaches to Healing1, with lyrics from two songs that capture the experience of being in heartbreak: “Floret Silva Nobilis,” from the twelfth-century Carmina Burana collection of songs, and “Sea of Heartbreak,” a popular song from 1961. In both songs, the lover has left, and the singer is feeling completely lost, alone, and in a state of panic, confusion, and helplessness. The singers do not know why they have been abandoned. The world these persons have known, the world in which they felt secure, is no more.
Paris’ topic is the healing of heartbreak. This may sound like a straightforward matter. But it is difficult to know what healing treatment is proper until we know the nature of the condition we are dealing with. Are we dealing with a “wound,” a break in the membrane of the heart or the psyche, where the remedy is to stop the bleeding and to close over the wound? Are we dealing with a “broken connection,” a defective synapse or local network in our neuronal system, where the remedy is to restore the circuits to their original state? Do we have some pre-existing gap or shortcoming in our self-awareness, where the heartbreak is a “wake-up call,” a “lesson,” where we are forced to learn something about how we ought to relate to our surroundings and to other persons? Or is heartbreak simply a common, everyday experience that happens to sensitive, vulnerable people, runs its course, and then fades into memory as we eventually decide it is time to move on with our lives?
One thing is certain about this condition: it is extremely powerful. Heartbreak can completely take over our lives and our behavior patterns. Somehow, for some reason, we are no longer in control, swept along by some force that makes no sense to us and shows no sign of abating with time. If there is one continuous message to be drawn from Paris’ book, from beginning to end, it is that the experience of being in heartbreak has this kind of power. Everything else—why heartbreak is so powerful, and what we can do to break its spell—revolves around this central point.
Paris certainly knows about the power of heartbreak, from the inside. She went through the experience, swept up by a narrative that had a momentum of its own, a momentum that furiously resisted her attempts to be in control of the course of her own life trajectory. In Heartbreak, she describes her firsthand understanding of the nature of the beast that must be confronted and how deeply a person can be stuck in this “heartbreak narrative.”
Although Paris’ training as a Jungian psychologist must have been of some value during this period, she made little progress in her attempt to regain her equilibrium. She needed a different set of conceptual tools. And so she immersed herself in a discipline that approached the problem from a different direction: neuroscience. In doing so, she gained significant new insights into the connections between the physical characteristics of the brain as an organ and the phenomenon of heartbreak. She learned that the brain’s different parts have distinctly different effects on our behavior, and that, in moments of crisis, our less rational parts can temporarily take complete charge of how we react.
According to one neuroscientific concept, our brain is actually three brains in one—the reptilian brain, the limbic or mammalian brain, and the neocortex. Each of these brains came into being at a different stage in the evolutionary stages from which the human species arose. Each of these brains performs a different set of functions for us; the level of complexity increases as we progress to the neocortex. Normally, the neocortex is in charge of our behavior patterns. However, under certain conditions of stress, the lesser brains may take complete control over our actions and thoughts. When this happens, our personality undergoes such a radical change that we can scarcely recognize ourselves. For example, when the reptilian brain takes over, we go into a “flight, fight, or freeze” mode, corresponding to the relatively simple behavior pattern which actual creatures equipped with such a brain (snakes and alligators) are capable of.
Paris uses the sympathetic and complex figure of Othello as a case study to illustrate what happens when the reptilian brain takes over. At the climax of the play, Othello goes into a rage when he convinces himself that Desdemona has been unfaithful to him. In his reptile-brained fury, he smothers her. Parenthetically, it should be noted that there is also a “mythological model” element that comes into play. The Moor of Venice is in the grips of a timeless script—the heartbreak narrative—that predates Shakespeare. Is Othello a tragic figure because he is unable to break free from his reptilian brain, or is he a tragic figure because he is unable to break free from the heartbreak narrative? I suspect that Shakespeare would have preferred the latter interpretation.
The second brain, the limbic or mammalian brain, is able to feel emotion. This portion of our brain has a need for affection, for a sense of security, and for comfort. Correspondingly, this portion of our brain is capable of feeling acute distress when we are separated from our source of protection and affection. Such distress is an instinctual reaction in children who feel abandoned by their mothers. This same reaction can be triggered in adults as well, and can be just as powerful. John Bowlby’s classic studies on loss and attachment behavior patterns in animals and humans give us a felt sense of what we are actually experiencing when our limbic brain takes over.2 In addition, Bowlby provides us with the idea that there is an underlying narrative pattern or “master story” that shapes the behavior of the individuals who are in heartbreak.
The knowledge that our behavior can be taken over by one of our “sub-brains” may be discouraging for us. However, on the positive side, neuroscience also teaches us that the brain is able to transform itself in real time to deal with life’s challenges and stresses. We may be born with a brain that is equipped with genetically-determined abilities and tendencies, but we are not stuck with the software that came from the factory. Our brain has a plasticity to it that enables it to reorganize itself and evolve within our lifetimes.
If our life situation changes in a drastic way that causes tension and stress over a prolonged period, such as when an individual is in heartache, the learning center of our brain is activated. This center in turn alters the configuration of the circuits within the brain. When this occurs, it is not only our individual brain that is affected. Neuroscientists believe that there is a feedback loop between culture and the brain; culture is being shaped by the brain at the same time as the brain is being shaped by culture.
This feedback loop can be valuable for persons in heartbreak. The tendency of a person in heartbreak is to withdraw and become isolated. However, neuroscientists strongly advise us not to withdraw. We must continue to keep the feedback loop between our brain and the surrounding culture fully engaged. They have found that the mind is strongly influenced in a positive way by our neuronal interactions with other humans. All of us are components in a number of nested systems that mutually influence each other. These interactions between nested systems affect our culture, our environment, and our individual personality in a self-organizing way. Thus, in the larger scheme, neurogenesis occurs, not only in our own brains, but also within an unbounded energy field that ultimately extends to the edges of the cosmos.
The formation of new neuronal connections is only a part of what needs to occur, however. Old neuronal circuits that were created when we were young have never gone away. In the case of childhood experiences that triggered insecurity-based responses in our anxious limbic brains, the circuits that were activated during this early period remain fully intact, ready to go into service whenever a new triggering event occurs. To deactivate these old circuits, we must first bring our original painful wounding experiences back into consciousness. Only then can the learning centers of our brain carry out the necessary task of reconfiguration. This is a component in the healing process where psychotherapists can work alongside neuroscientists.
Although the above findings are extremely valuable, Paris’ work was not yet complete. There are other aspects to the problem of heartbreak that cannot be addressed by the neuroscientific approach alone. Paris realized she would also need to incorporate ideas from her own field—depth psychology—to take full advantage of the insights from both disciplines. Paris’ overall task was to develop a synthesized healing process, which she presents in her book.
It is significant that Paris’ field of depth psychology has an orientation that is closely tied to the mythological perspective. This supplementary background helped her to identify another source of the power heartbreak has over our lives. In the “mythological model” way of analyzing human behavior, the victim is viewed as a character in a scripted narrative that follows a prescribed pattern. The Greek tragedies with which we are familiar are based on this model. The main character may think he or she has free will, but the power of the myth supersedes, carrying the character along towards an inevitable destination. The “remedy” in this model is to enable the victim to recognize the narrative he is caught up in and to provide a counterintuitive set of instructions with which to break free from the spell. Unfortunately, according to the formula of tragedy, recognition does not occur until the final scene, when it is too late.
This mythological model approach applies particularly well to the stories of persons who are in heartbreak. Each time, the same highly predictable narrative plot scenario seems to play itself out, over and over, regardless of how psychologically whole or how strong-willed the victim might seem to be. This scenario is typically accompanied by a denial of what is happening, by panic, by obsessive behavior, by depression, and by deterioration of health. Frequently, the person who finds himself or herself in this narrative is so deeply enmeshed in it and is so distraught as a result of it that he or she is unable to pull out of it.
Paris lays out this narrative pattern in painstaking, blow-by-blow detail. She identifies the common plot elements that interconnect all of the real-life, personal stories of heartbreak victims in a single powerful “master story.” The sufferers are borne along by this narrative as if they are caught in an archetypal riptide or undertow. To embody this master story, Paris focuses on a single case study, tracing the heartbreak story of William from beginning to end. His story of heartbreak is both a typical one in the commonality it shares with the stories of other heartbreak victims, and it is archetypal, in its fulfillment of the requirements of the genre. It is a timeless story.
As I became more and more deeply involved in this narrative, seeing the unfolding events through the eyes of William, a powerful, somewhat dreamlike image came into my head that seemed to be a metaphor for the feeling of panic that William was enduring:
My father was a Marine training pilot stationed at Jacksonville in the early 1940s. He told me that a few student pilots would freeze up while holding onto their control sticks. They were unwilling to let go or change the position of the control stick even as they could see the plane was going down. They ought to have had enough rational awareness to know that unless the flight controls were moved into a different position, the plane would continue on this same downward course all the way into the ground. But when they were in this frightened frame of mind, nothing could be done about it. Both the student pilot and the flight instructor would be killed.
There seemed to be an uncanny connection between the aerodynamic situation these student pilots were in and the psychological or neurological condition victims of heartbreak are in. As a part of the flight lesson, the pilot was supposed to reduce his airspeed to the point where the plane would stall. It was a deliberate act to cause the plane to go into a tailspin. The pilot was then supposed to bring the plane out of the tailspin. The “trick” in doing this successfully was to move the stick in a counterintuitive way, in the opposite direction a pilot would instinctively want to move it. But these particular trainees would go into a reptilian brain-freeze and refuse to move the control stick in the counterintuitive way they were taught to use. In addition, they would refuse to allow the flight instructor to take over (it is doubtful that they could even hear him). The plane would remain in a tailspin, all the way into the ground. I later learned that this kind of a crash was called “auguring in.”
In the case of the victims of heartbreak, they too appear to be in some kind of “death spiral” from which they are unable to extricate themselves. They too are in a brain mode that is incapable of making rational decisions. They too are aware that their life is in danger, but their instinctual response has completely taken them over. It is as if they are in a trance.
The “trick” for heartbreak victims is as counterintuitive as it is for the unfortunate student pilots in the metaphorical image I used above. They must be willing to stay in their fear and pain long enough to allow the brain to form new synapses, and they must be willing to remain open to the formation of new relationships despite the danger of exposure to new heartbreaks.
There seems to be a connection between William’s inability to let go of the situation he was in and the student pilot’s inability to let go of his control stick. At a certain point, William had to make a decision: should he remain in this mode, or should he start considering other options? It is a life-and-death choice. In William’s case, he needed to make a decision to separate from Laura, to let go of a relationship that he consciously knew was unsustainable. Finally, he was able to let Laura go. William also made several concrete changes to the life he was living, going into a period of quiet self-reflection and solitude, taking up a new set of activities that re-engaged his brain, and reestablishing his connections with his daughters and his friends. These changes enabled his brain to register that it was in a new situation, at which time it autonomously began to make new synaptic connections. Gradually, his psyche emerged from its torpor.
In my title to this review, I posed the question, “What do we need to change?” William’s story and Paris’ accompanying discussion regarding the “heartbreak narrative” give us part of the answer. We need to change our own story, to get ourselves out of the predictable pattern of behavior, and move into a new narrative. There are, of course, other things we need to do to get ourselves out of heartbreak successfully. We need to remain open to relationships with other persons and the wider community. We need to change our physical environment and day-to-day activity patterns. We need to be willing to stay in the tension of heartbreak by bringing our old childhood wounding experiences up into consciousness so we can reconfigure our old neuronal circuits. There are no simple, quick-fix answers to the question of what we need to change. The case study of William illustrates the kind of commitment that is needed for an effective recovery to occur.
I would like to add a few more comments on Paris’ discoveries regarding the wonderful things the brain is able to achieve, which I am amazed to learn about and wish to explore further. Earlier, I mentioned the brain’s ability to reconfigure its own circuits as a means of self-transformation or self-organization to meet the challenges posed by the external environment. There appears to be a connection between this physiological process and the conceptual or imaginal process by which narrative patterns influence our behavior. Paris cites the works of psychiatrist Daniel Siegel and cognitive neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga in which they discuss the idea that such brain-and-narrative connections are possible. Siegel coined the term interpersonal neurobiology, and he showed the role stories play in coordinating processes in the right and left hemispheres of the brain.3 Paris says Siegel’s work supports the Jungian belief that the formulation of a narrative has a positive effect on the healing process. Gazzaniga takes this idea farther by identifying an interpreter mechanism in the left hemisphere of our brain. This mechanism not only seeks explanations for why events occur; it also forms images and stories to accompany the explanations it has discovered (an internal scriptwriter!).4 I suspect that this localized “mechanism” is not acting in total autonomy; surely there is a feedback loop between this mechanism and external nested systems. These findings bring us to the point where neuroscience and depth psychology intersect and even merge. In time, it will become more and more difficult to distinguish the two disciplinary approaches.
Looking at her book as a whole, Paris has taken on an enormously ambitious, challenging, and complex task, in the process of which she has integrated state-of-the-art findings from the diverse fields of neuroscience, animal behavior, depth psychology, mythology, cognitive neuroscience, and cognitive psychology into a coherent and organic whole. In doing so, she has found a way to bridge the vast chasm between the sciences and the humanities. She has not only shown us a new approach to healing; she has redefined what it means to heal.
4 Gazzaniga, Michael, The Mind’s Past (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1998).
1 Paris, Ginette, Heartbreak: New Approaches to Healing (Minneapolis, MN: Mill City Press, 2011).
2 Bowlby, John, Attachment and Loss, vols. 1 and 2 (London: Hogarth Press, 1969 and 1973).
3 Siegel, David, The Mindful Brain: Reflection and Attunement in the Cultivation of Well-Being (New York: Norton, 2007).
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