Suddenly, Martin had the feeling that the world was collapsing around him. His girlfriend, the woman he had lived with for the last 10 years of his life, had just told him that she no longer loved him, that she had fallen in love with another man, and that she was leaving the house that very night.
The sense of disbelief that gripped Martin at that time continued for several days, and even months, after she had left. Distressed and confused, he kept wondering what the hell had happened.
He usually found himself wandering around the house alone, immersed in questions and dark thoughts. With time, all sorts of happy moments began to come to his mind, reminiscent of a better time that tormented him permanently: he remembered the smile of his ex-girlfriend, the last time they went on holiday, the walks they took together every weekend in the neighbourhood park, the hugs and gestures of affection they gave each other, the trips to the cinema and theatre, the shared humour, and a whole waterfall of etceteras that projected before his eyes like a film, over and over again.
Besides, I often had the feeling that she was still in the house. I could smell her, see her standing by the living room window, and hear her childlike laughter echoing now in her sad, desolate abode.
She was no longer there, but had become a very present ghost that haunted him wherever he went.This was Martin’s story. Now I’m going to tell another case, very different and very similar at the same time.
Sentimental breaks and losses
Just as Martin lost his girlfriend, Diego lost a part of his body . He had suffered a serious car accident that led him to emergency surgery where the doctors had no choice but to amputate his hand.
The funny thing about it, and leaving aside the sad and dramatic part of the story, is that in the days and months following the operation, Diego felt that the hand that had been removed from him was still in place.
I knew rationally, of course, that I was now one-armed. In fact, he could contemplate the very nothingness where his hand had once been. The evidence before his eyes was irrefutable. But, in spite of that, Diego could not help feeling that the injured hand was still in place. Moreover, he assured the doctors that he could move his fingers, and there were even days when his palm itched and he didn’t quite know what to do to scratch it.
The strange phenomenon that affected Diego has a name… it’s known as phantom limb syndrome. It is a well-documented pathology that, like everything that happens to us in life, has its origin in the architecture of the brain.
The phantom limb
Each part of our body occupies a specific place in the brain. The hands, fingers, arms, feet and the rest of the components of the human anatomy have a specific and identifiable neural correlate. In simple terms, our entire organism is represented in the brain, that is, it occupies a given space made up of a set of interconnected neurons.
If misfortune stalks us and we suddenly lose a leg in an accident, what disappears from our body instantly is the real leg, but not the areas of the brain where that leg is represented.
It is similar to taking a page out of a book: that particular page will no longer be part of the volume in question; however, it will still exist in the index. Here we are faced with a gap between what we are supposed to have and what we actually have .
Another way of understanding it is to think about the actual geographical territory of a country and its cartographic representation, that is, the place that country occupies on the map of the world… A giant tidal wave could well cause Japan to sink into the ocean, but obviously Japan would still exist on all the school maps scattered over the face of the Earth.
Similarly, if from one day to the next, the unfortunate Diego no longer has his right hand, but for his brain he still exists, it is to be expected that the poor boy feels that he can take things with his missing limb, play with his fingers, or even scratch his ass when no one is looking.
The Adaptive Brain
The brain is a flexible organ, with the ability to reorganize itself. For the purposes of this case, this means that the area of the brain where Diego’s injured hand once sat does not die or disappear.
On the contrary, over time, as they no longer receive sensory information from the environment, such as touch, cold and heat, the nerve cells no longer perform their specific function. As there is no longer any reason for them to remain there, as their existence is no longer justified, the unemployed neurons are put at the service of another member of the body. They usually migrate to neighbouring regions of the brain. They change equipment, to put it in colloquial terms.
Of course, this doesn’t happen overnight. It takes the brain months and years to accomplish such a feat. During this transition period, it is possible that the injured person lives in a state of deception , believing that there is still something where there is really nothing left.
Now, what does the strange hand syndrome have to do with the poor Martin and his runaway girlfriend that give the title to this article?
Quite a lot, in a sense, since not only do our different body parts have a physical representation in the brain, but also everything we do during the day, our most diverse experiences.
If we take Czech language or clarinet lessons, the resulting learning triggers the literal reorganization of some regions of our brain. All new knowledge involves the recruitment of thousands and thousands of neurons so that this new information can be fixed and preserved in the long term.
The same is true for Clarita, the woman Martin was living with. After many years of courtship and dozens of experiences together, she occupied a very specific place in the man’s brain, just as the missing hand occupied a specific place in Diego’s brain.
With the hand removed, and Clarita removed, both brains will need time to adjust to the new circumstances ; clinging to the past, they will do nothing but bombard each other with illusory glimpses of a reality that no longer exists. Thus, while Diego feels that he still has his hand, Martín feels the presence of Clarita, and both suffer damningly from the strong emotional contrast that is generated each time they become aware that this is no longer the case.
The problem does not end there
There is an aggravating factor, and that is the feeling of discomfort that comes when the old brain can’t get what it wants.
When a person dazzles us, the central nervous system begins to release large amounts of a substance called dopamine. This is a neurotransmitter whose function, in this case, is to stimulate what is known as the brain’s reward circuit, responsible for the sensation of well-being and fullness that characterizes the lover .
On the other hand, excess dopamine circulating in our neurons blocks a region called the prefrontal cortex which, coincidentally, is the biological seat of reflective thinking, critical judgment, and problem-solving ability. In other words, when we fall in love, the possibility of thinking and acting intelligently goes to the seventh circle of hell, and beyond.
Blinded and stunned by love
Falling in love leaves us half stupid, and that responds to an evolutionary end. Blinded by love, not being able to perceive our partner’s faults contributes to quickly strengthening the bond. If the person in question seems perfect to us, without negative traits, it will make us want to spend a lot of time with him, which in turn will increase the likelihood that we will end up in bed, have children, and continue to populate the world. Which, by the way, is the only thing that really interests our genes .
However, if for some reason the relationship is permanently disrupted, the reward circuit is deprived of its source of dopamine, which triggers a real withdrawal syndrome. Instead, the stress circuit is activated, and the lover suffers like a prisoner because he cannot get what his brain insists on.
Like a recovering alcoholic or drug addict, the deserted bride or groom may even commit all sorts of recklessness and nonsense in order to get his or her beloved back.
The period it takes for the brain to readjust to this disruption is what is commonly known as grief , and it is usually variable from one person to another, since it depends on the type and intensity of the bond, the attachment and the importance we attribute to the one we have lost.