Healthy living

Heartbreak as bad as physical pain

Heartbreak as bad as physical pain Similar areas of the brain affected

Heartbreak and other intense feelings of social rejection "hurt" in the same way as physical pain, a new study shows.

Researchers found that being rejected activates the same region of the brain as physical pain.

"These results give new meaning to the idea that social rejection 'hurts'," said Dr Ethan Kross, a social psychologist at the University of Michigan.

"On the surface, spilling a hot cup of coffee on yourself and thinking about how rejected you feel when you look at the picture of a person that you recently experienced an unwanted break-up with may seem to elicit very different types of pain.

"But this research shows that they may be even more similar than initially thought."

In the study, the researchers recruited 40 people who had split up with their partners against their wishes within the past six months and which left them feeling 'intensely rejected.'

Functional MRI scans of the participants brains were done as the participants completed two tasks - one linked to their feelings of rejection and the other to the sensation of physical pain.

Participants looked at a photos of their ex-partner and were asked to think about how they felt when they split up or others featuring a happy occasion with friends.

For the physical pain task, heat was applied to their forearms with a probe, similar to holding a very hot cup of coffee.

The researchers, from the University of Michigan, found that both emotional and physical pain activated similar areas of the brain.

"We found that powerfully inducing feelings of social rejection activate regions of the brain that are involved in physical pain sensation, which are rarely activated in neuroimaging studies of emotion," Dr Kross said.

"These findings are consistent with the idea that the experience of social rejection, or social loss more generally, may represent a distinct emotional experience that is uniquely associated with physical pain."

The researchers hopes the findings will offer fresh insight into how intense emotional pain can lead to various physical pain symptoms and disorders.

They also pointed out that the findings affirm the wisdom of cultures worldwide that use the same language—words like "hurt" and "pain"—to describe the experience of both physical pain and social rejection.

The findings are published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

This article was published on Wed 30 March 2011

Image © Maxim Malevich -

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