Study shows that broken heart really does hurt

Published: Tuesday, March 29 2011 11:22 a.m. MDT

The '80s rock band Foreigner sang about it, Keith Adams explained it and researchers at the University of Michigan proved it: A broken heart really does hurt — actual physical pain.

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.

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."

What's clear from the study, according to a report in Medical News Today, is that "the brain actually triggers sensations that you also feel in times of real physical pain, making heartbreak truly, physically painful to add to the emotional distress it sometimes causes."

That article also offers helpful tips aimed at reducing physical pain: breath, know you're just human, reach out to others and several more.

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.

"Kross suspects we've evolved to feel actual pain at separation because way back when humans were on the savannah, they needed to stay connected," wrote Linda Carroll of the study on MSN.com. "Being alone was dangerous — you'd be more of a target for the wandering saber-toothed tiger."

"One of the most negative things to happen, in terms of survival, is being excluded from the group," Kross told her. "So the feeling of physical pain would be a powerful cue to pay attention to what you're doing."

Science 2.0 two years ago published an in-depth look at "the science behind heartbreak," in a blog by Ashley Cox.

The new study was funded by the National Institute of Mental Health and by the National Institute on Drug Abuse and performed at Columbia University.

EMAIL: lois@desnews.com

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