Painful heartbreak: Can science cure a broken heart?

In the episode titled "Love Hurts: The Science of Heartbreak" of the CBC series "The Nature of Things," host Anthony Morgan explores the science of heartbreak

Painful heartbreak: Can science cure a broken heart? (Getty Images)
Painful heartbreak: Can science cure a broken heart? (Getty Images)

It's a widely accepted fact that everyone, at some point, will go through heartbreak, but a new episode of CBC's The Nature of Things explores the possibility of science being able to cure a broken heart.

In the episode titled "Love Hurts: The Science of Heartbreak" (airing Feb. 8 at 9:00 p.m. ET on CBC TV, and available to stream on CBC Gem), host Anthony Morgan explores what scientifically happens to humans when they experience heartbreak, and if there is a possible solution to ease those feelings.

"I love this episode, because it lets us do everything we wanted to do with the show, which is to explore the most profound and important, and universal and meaningful parts of life, in a really a thoughtful way, but also to have some fun with it," Morgan told Yahoo Canada.

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Part of this process involved Morgan going to The Douglas Research Centre in Montreal to meet with clinical psychologist, Dr. Alain Brunet. Brunet's studies have been focused on the role of memory in the development of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), and researching ways of "toning down the strength" of these traumatic memories.

That's where the medication propranolol comes in, largely used to treat high blood pressure, but Brunet and researcher Dr. Michelle Lonergan are experimenting on using the drug on people who have experienced heartbreak.

A core element to understand this research is that this isn't Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, nothing is being erased, but it's about the possibility of turning a "traumatic memory" into a "bad memory."

While Morgan described his time with Brunet as "fascinating," what really peaked his interest were considerations around trying to determine when to use propranolol.

"I asked him, if somebody came to see you tomorrow and they had their heart broken the day before, would you start giving them this treatment? Would you administer it? And he said, well probably not," Morgan explained. "You need to let it have a little bit more time and the line about when you start treating them, and when you don't, is really blurry."

"It's not obvious when we should do this, or if we should do this, and so just getting to explore his thoughts about that, it was amazing."

CBC's "The Nature of Things" co-hosts Anthony Morgan and Sarika Cullis-Suzuki (CBC)

Do we need to experience painful heartbreak?

As part of this exploration, Morgan speaks to people who are experiencing heartbreak, understanding what they've gone through and evaluating if these scientific developments could help them.

"These people are telling me about some of the hardest experiences of their lives, for most people these kinds of heartbreaks, they're in a lot of ways what can define our lives, in positive and negative ways," Morgan stressed. "So they were incredibly vulnerable and courageous to share those stories with me."

"I felt a tremendous amount of gratitude that they were choosing to do that, ... sharing this with really the world. I was just filled with admiration and respect, and awe and gratitude at the stories that we're sharing. I felt a bit nervous because I wanted to make sure that we tell their stories properly, and really convey what it is that they went through in a way that they are happy with, ... that really captures their experience. So I feel like we've done that."

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Part of the "Love Hurts: The Science of Heartbreak" episode also includes Morgan hosting an event, where he asked people a series of questions about love and heartbreak. Through this exercise, one person equated heartbreak to touching a hot stove, in the sense that you don't need to actually experience it to understand that you will burn your hand.

So a core question through this journey is, do we really need to experience painful, traumatic heartbreak?

"I think if I had to pick, I would probably lean towards, I'll have my heart broken, then I'll figure out how to deal with it. I'd like to just kind of have my experiences," Morgan said. "Science tells us what's possible, society decides what's right."

"At one of these games we played, I asked people, imagine that you had a friend or somebody close to you that died prematurely and you could take a pill to erase the heartache of that premature death, you could let go of that feeling, would you want to? And most people said no, they'd want to hold on to that pain. When people say, 'I want to hold on to suffering,' you have to ask why. And what they told me was that they felt that the pain would let them know how important that person was to them and that the pain connected them to other people who have been through similar kinds of pain. It was just such a profound and moving answer, and I think ... that's probably where I want to stand."