The new research, published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, shows that the part of the brain that turns on when someone is rejected romantically is the same one that registers physical pain.Breaking up is hard to do!
When '80s rock-n-rollers in the band Foreigner crooned, "In my life there's been heartache and pain, I don't know if I can face it again," in the hit song "I Wanna Know What Love Is," it appears they were documenting a physical phenomena.
The study, led by social psychologist Ethan Kross, an assistant professor at U. of Michigan, looked at functional magnetic resonance imaging scans of 40 people who had basically been "dumped" romantically within the past six months. While the scan was taking place, each one was touched on the arm with a probe hot enough to be somewhat painful, but not enough to do damage. It was, Kross said, the equivalent of holding a very hot drink without one of the little cardboard sleeves to insulate it. Then the study participant was scanned either looking at a photo of the former love interest and thinking about the breakup or thinking about good times with a friend. The scans were compared to scans taken in other circumstances in order to examine both physical and emotional pain.
"These results give new meaning to the idea that social rejection 'hurts'. 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," said Kross in the release announcing the research. "But this research shows that they may be even more similar than initially thought."
The regions of the brain that light up for both pain and heartbreak are the secondary somatosensory cortex and the dorsal posterior insula. And Kross noted that the two regions are "rarely activated in neuroimaging studies of emotion," Kross said. That would indicate it's pain, not emotion, that goes with the heartbreak of a breakup.