The science of heartbreak
Heartbreak Hurts (Literally)
Edward E. Smith, director of cognitive neuroscience at Columbia University, recently directed a study that showed the brain reacts to rejection in the same manner that it reacts to physical pain. The researchers took 40 people who had recently gone through an unwanted breakup (they were dumped) and made them perform a series of tasks. The first task was looking through a series of pictures of either friends and family or pictures of their recent ex. They other task involved being stimulated on their left arm with a probe that was either mildly warm or intensely hot. Through the series of tasks, the participants were scanned with fMRI imaging equipment to record the reactions in their brains.
When it came to the images of the recent ex and the intense heat, the same parts of the brain that are associated with physical pain lit up on the fMRI scans. Specifically, the dorsal anterior cingulate (dACC), anterior insula (AI), the thalamus, and the right parietal opercular/insular cortex.
So, in essence, our brains react to heartbreak in the same way that they react to physical pain. According to Smith, “This tells us how serious rejection can be sometimes. When people are saying ‘I really feel in pain about this breakup,’ you don’t want to trivialize it and dismiss it by saying ‘It’s all in your mind.’ Our ultimate goal is to see what kind of therapeutic approach might be useful in relieving the pain of rejection. From everyday experience, rejection seems to be one of the most painful things we experience. It seems the feelings of rejection can be sustained even longer than being angry.”
So, according to science, that intense physical sensation that is associated with heartbreak is an actual thing. It’s not something that we construct in our own heads – it is a physiological reality.