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Why Breakups Hurt Even More Than You Think

Do our brains really react to romantic rejection and physical pain the same way?

On the surface, spilling a hot cup of coffee on yourself and finding out that your partner is leaving you seem like pretty distinct events—while the first scenario involves intense physical pain, the second does not. But consider how we often describe these types of events: We use the same words: "She got burned by her boyfriend," or, "His breakup was like a kick in the stomach." Now new research suggests that it's not only such words that link physical pain and social rejection; areas of the brain devoted to registering physical pain are also involved when we feel socially rejected.

Neuroscientists have been interested in how feelings of rejection relate to physical pain for some time. The consensus has been that brain regions related to the affective component of physical pain (the aversive feeling of it) also underlie social rejection, while brain regions involved in our sensory experience of pain (the physical feeling of being hurt) do not. However, in a paper published recently in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers found that being rejected—when that rejection is intense enough—recruits brain regions involved in both the affective and physical sense of pain.

This work gives new meaning to the idea that "love hurts."

Most previous studies looking at what happens in the brain when people feel socially rejected used rejection scenarios that just were not that intense: People were, for example, exposed to paintings that had rejection themes in them, or they received feedback that an anonymous stranger didn't like them. These can be unpleasant experiences, no doubt, but they don't really register as intense.

To rectify this issue, Ethan Kross and his colleagues recruited people who had felt intensely rejected as a result of a recent romantic relationship breakup and had them, while their brains were being scanned using fMRI, look at pictures of their ex and think about the rejection experience. The researchers also had these people experience mild physical pain during the brain scans—by hooking up a device to their left forearm that delivered a painful (but tolerable) feeling of heat.

What the scientists found was that the intense social rejection experience activated many of the same brain areas that were active when people felt physical pain. Moreover, a closer look at the brain revealed that it wasn't just brain areas involved in the affective aspect of pain that became active when people thought about being rejected, but also areas (e.g., parts of the somatosensory cortex and insula) that register the sensory aspect of pain.

So intense social rejection really does share a lot in common with physical pain. It's been suggested that the brain systems that underlie social rejection likely developed by co-opting brain circuits that support the experience of physical pain. This new work provides support for this idea and shows that it's not just the distressing aspect of pain that social rejection mimics, but the actual sensory experience as well.

Our bodies play a bigger role in the workings of the mind than we ever knew. As it happens, getting rejected is quite literally painful.

Kross et al. (2011). Social rejection shares somatosensory representations with physical pain. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA, 108, 6270-6275.

For more on connections between the mind and body, check out my new book Choke.

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