It sounds like a cliche, but new research suggests it might literally be true.
Rejection by a romantic partner during a breakup activates regions of the brain associated with physical pain, according to the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences study.
“Rejection literally hurts,” said researcher Edward Smith, a cognitive neuroscientist at Columbia University.
People have long described the sadness over a lost love or a romantic breakup in much the same way, using words like “pain” and “hurt.” They often sounded as though they’re speaking interchangeably about mental anguish and physical suffering — making scientists wonder whether the two feelings might be triggering the same areas of the brain.
From an evolutionary standpoint, the sensation of physical pain after a rejection makes sense, since being cast out of a group might lead to extreme vulnerability in the wild, Smith said.
“That might be why this link evolved between rejection and pain, to make us want to avoid rejection,” he told LiveScience.
And it isn’t only the experience of being dumped. The bad memories can cause intense pain too, the findings show.
But previous research has been unsuccessful in finding evidence of a concrete link between rejection and the brain’s pain centers.
Smith said it was the methodology of those studies that was problematic, since they tried to muster up jilted feelings by having participants imagine situations that didn’t elicit strong emotional reactions. They were told, for example, that a stranger didn’t like them, or that they weren’t invited to play a computer game with the rest of the group.
“We wanted something bigger,” said Smith. So he and his co-authors solicited volunteers who had unwillingly been broken up with in the past. Participants also had probes on their arms that delivered potentially painful bursts of heat, to compare the brain activity that occurred during physical sensations of pain. The findings showed that the same areas of the brain were activated while the subjects experienced the physical pain of the heat probe and the emotional pain associated with the breakup memories.
The authors are now delving into ways people might be able to alleviate that kind of anguish, including existing strategies used in psychotherapy.
“One piece of advice when thinking about rejection is to view experiences with an ex-partner as an outside person from a distance,” Smith told LiveScience. “We want to see if this really does help at the level of the brain.”
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