• Robb G. Best

Bad Breakup? Neuroscience Can Help

Minnesota-based singer-songwriter, rapper, and essayist Dessa is famous—to the extent she is famous—for her gorgeous, aching breakup songs. What even many fans don’t know is that most of those songs are about one person, a man Dessa has dated on and off for ten emotionally trying years.

“And I was not only heartbroken, I was kind of embarrassed that I couldn’t rebound from what other people seemed to recover from so regularly,” she explained at a 2019 TED Talk offshoot, TEDxWanChai. “And even though I knew it wasn’t doing either of us any good, I just couldn’t put the love down.”

One night, while drinking wine and browsing the internet, she came across a TED Talk by Dr. Helen Fisher, who had mapped out what love looks like in the human brain. Dessa was fascinated; she’d been hounded by her romantic feelings for years but had never imagined being able to concretely, scientifically map them out and see them. Dessa wondered: if there was a way to pinpoint where in the brain her love for this one man lived, was there a way to turn it off?

She enlisted the help of Dr. Cheryl Olman of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Magnetic Research. First, they used an fMRI machine to scan Dessa’s brain while she looked at a picture of her ex, and then as a control, a picture of a man she had no particular feelings about. By subtracting out the things her brain did looking at any old photo of a man, they were able to map out which areas of her brain were activated by her ex: the ventral tegmental area, the anterior cingulate, and the caudates.

“That was what I had to annihilate,” said Dessa. Working with a woman named Penijean Gracefire, Dessa embarked on a course of neurofeedback treatment, which seeks to teach people how to exercise more control over what their brain does; Dessa compares it to flexibility training.

Dessa’s brain was hooked up to small, sensitive electrodes and shown real-time footage of her brain activity, including a map of which areas were over-activated at any given time. The team isolated the brain areas specifically associated with her love for her ex, and whenever she managed to keep those regions within a healthy range of activity, she was rewarded with a pleasant harp or vibraphone sound. That was it. “And that was counterintuitive,” Dessa said. “She said the learning would be essentially unconscious.”

Then again, much of our learning is unconscious. Even when we create our own habits from scratch, we rarely notice it.

After several sessions, Dessa returned to Dr. Olman and they scanned her brain in an fMRI again, looking at a photo of Subject A, and the control, Subject B. “Dude A’s dominance of your brain seems to have essentially been eradicated,” Dr. Olman wrote. “I think this is the desired result, yes?”

Dessa took stock. Her memories of her ex were not wiped away, she notes, like ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.’ “But it felt like the benevolent feelings had risen to the surface, and the feelings of fixation and the less generous feelings weren’t quite so present. And that sounds like a small thing in some way, the resequencing of feelings, but to me it was the biggest thing.”

"I've written a bunch of sad rap bangers,” she told NPR. “I'd like to write other kinds of songs.”

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