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Physical and Emotional Pain Have Similar Effect on the Brain
If you’ve ever experienced the emotional ache – or agony – of a breakup as a physical sensation, a new study shows why. Emotional pain and physical pain activate the very same areas of the brain. Now, the saying "love hurts" has scientific evidence to back it up.
Researchers behind the current study wanted to see whether there’s something to the fact that many cultures around the world use similar language to describe both physical and emotional distress. In the study’s press release, author Edward Smith says that the new research goes a step beyond earlier ones by using participants who had really just been broken up with: "Rather than try and create a relatively tame rejection experience in the laboratory, we took advantage of ‘natural misfortunes’."
The team recruited 40 participants who had experienced an "unwanted romantic relationship break-up" and who felt "intensely rejected" because of it. The participants had their brains scanned (via MRI) in two situations: once while they looked at pictures of their ex’s and were simultaneously instructed to think about their feelings of rejection, and once while they were given a stimulus on their forearms that elicited physical pain.
The two situations – the memory of emotional pain and the present experience of physical pain – activated the same sensory areas in the brain. Lead author of the study, Ethan Cross, says 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". He adds that the "findings suggest that the experience of social rejection, or social loss more generally, may represent a distinct emotional experience that is uniquely associated with physical pain."
But what does this study tell us, aside from providing an interesting confirming of what may seem intuitive to some? The team writes that their findings offer some clues into how certain pain disorders, like somatoform disorder (in which physical symptoms a person feels are actually psychological in origin) and fibromyalgia, may develop after the experience of emotional pain. It may also offer insight into the concept of "embodiment," which suggests that physical sensation plays a key part in the perception of emotion.
The research will likely open up many future studies on the intimate relationship between physical and emotional pain. The team suggests that one avenue will be to determine whether the expectation of future rejection will also activate the sensory pain areas of the brain.
The research was conducted by a team at Columbia University and published in the March 28, 2011 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
April 12, 2011