Remember the first time you fell in love with someone who didn’t want to be with you? The total high when he looked your way and the gut punch of his cold shoulder? The agony of unrequited love gets Baz Luhrmann’s extravagant treatment in a new movie version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, in theaters now.
In the story, Gatsby and Daisy, played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Carey Mulligan, are teenage sweethearts separated by the war. Daisy has since married a rich, powerful man, Tom Buchanan, and Gatsby is doing everything he can to get her back. He becomes a self-made millionaire, buys a house across the water from hers and throws lavish parties hoping to see her at one of them. He finally does rekindle the fire, only to have his heart broken again when she won’t leave her husband.
Gatsby is disturbingly obsessive, but his response to lost love is a heightened version of what we all go through. It’s a natural, chemical reaction.
When we are rejected or ignored by someone we love, our brains shift into autopilot. Our reptilian brain turns on—the part of the brain that’s pure instinct, beneath logic or emotion.
In the brain of a scorned lover, three major regions light up. First, the reward system. It makes you crave and desire the person and focuses all of your attention on getting them. Second, an area of the brain that measures gains and losses makes you much more willing to take risks. And third, a region linked to emotional attachment makes separation painful.
“When you’ve been rejected in love, not only are you engulfed with feelings of romantic love, but you’re feeling deep attachment to this individual,” says anthropologist Helen Fisher in a 2008 TED talk on the brain in love. “Moreover, this brain circuit for reward is working, and you’re feeling intense energy, intense focus, intense motivation and the willingness to risk it all to win life’s greatest prize.” In other words, you—like Gatsby—are obsessed with winning this person’s heart.
The rejection we feel when our love is not returned causes huge emotional turbulence and even physical pain. But against all odds, we stay hopeful. The mere possibility that the person we love might one day love us back keeps our attraction alive.
Up next: How to get over your unrequited love.