Tuesday 3 May 2011

Romantic pain causes physical pain

To die from a broken heart. Love hurts. Oh such a painful loss. You probably have your own sayings which portray love or the problems of love as somehow being equated to physical pain. Leave it up to the researchers to finally get around to testing this supposedly figurative use of the word "pain" and discover that a romantic breakup can activate areas of our brains associated with pain. You may not be experiencing pain in the same sense as being physically hurt, but the pain you feel has similar characteristics. Yes, it hurts, but it is truly "all in your head".

A paper presented to The National Academy of Sciences called "Social rejection shares somatosensory representations with physical pain" set out to explore the possible link between what we would classify as physical pain and social rejection.

Consider two scenarios. In the first, you spill a hot cup of coffee on your forearm and experience intense pain. In the second, you look at pictures of your former romantic partner, a person with whom you recently experienced an unwanted breakup; as you view each photo you feel rejected and experience another kind of “pain.” On the surface, these two events seem quite distinct. Whereas the former involves a noxious bodily stimulus, the latter involves the termination of a social relationship. However, cultures around the world use the same language—words like “hurt” and “pain”—to describe both experiences, raising the question: How similar are social rejection and physical pain?

The paper goes on to explain the methodology:

We tested this hypothesis by recruiting 40 individuals who felt intensely rejected as a result of recently experiencing an unwanted romantic relationship break-up (see Methods). Participants performed two counterbalanced tasks during functional MRI (fMRI) scanning: a Social Rejection task and a Physical Pain task. Briefly, the Social Rejection task compared Ex-partner trials, in which participants viewed a headshot of their former partner and thought about their specific rejection experience, and Friend trials, in which participants viewed a headshot of a friend who was the same sex as their ex-partner and thought about a recent positive experience they shared with that person. The Physical Pain task also consisted of two types of trials: Hot trials, in which participants experienced noxious thermal stimulation on their left forearm, and Warm trials, in which participants experienced nonnoxious thermal stimulation in the same area. Participants rated how they felt after each task trial using a five-point scale, with lower numbers reflecting more distress.

The results showed that those experiencing "social rejection", that is the emotional distress stemming from having broken up with their former partner, demonstrated in the MRI scans brain activity similar to the brain activity which is the consequence of true physical pain. In other words, the two experiences trigger the same "pain centres" of the brain.

Okay, love hurts. But why? Is there some hidden meaning to the phenomenon? Researcher Edward Smith told the online magazine LiveScience that during the course of human evolution, rejection from a group could leave one extraordinarily vulnerable, "so that might be why this link evolved between rejection and pain, to make us want to avoid rejection."

From Wikipedia: Rejection is emotionally painful because of the social nature of human beings and our basic need to be accepted in groups. Abraham Maslow and other theorists have suggested that the need for love and belongingness is a fundamental human motivation. ... people have a strong motivational drive to form and maintain caring interpersonal relationships. People need both stable relationships and satisfying interactions with the people in those relationships. If either of these two ingredients is missing, people will begin to feel lonely and unhappy. Thus, rejection is a significant threat. In fact, the majority of human anxieties appear to reflect concerns over social exclusion.

Final Word
The above experiment sought out people having just gone through a romantic break-up. However, the idea of social rejection extends beyond that one example as Wikipedia points out: A person can be rejected on an individual basis or by an entire group of people. Furthermore, rejection can be either active, by bullying, teasing, or ridiculing, or passive, by ignoring a person, or giving the "silent treatment." Of course, it is important to add here that some rejection like teasing may be playful and not malicious and the "silent treatment" may be unintentional. There is the question of perception.

Nevertheless, social rejection is real and MRI scans prove the similarity between the feelings associated with being rejected and physical pain. There's no doubt about it: love truly hurts.

(I wrote those final words and the first thing that popped into my head was How Can You Mend a Broken Heart by the Bee Gees. I was tempted to embed the video, but said, "Nah, that's a bit too corny." So I left a link to a Google search to find the same below. Enjoy.)


Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Social rejection shares somatosensory representations with physical pain
Ethan Krossa, Marc G. Berman: Department of Psychology, University of Michigan
Walter Mischel, Edward E. Smith: Department of Psychology, Columbia University
Tor D. Wager: Department of Psychology, University of Colorado
How similar are the experiences of social rejection and physical pain? Extant research suggests that a network of brain regions that support the affective but not the sensory components of physical pain underlie both experiences. Here we demonstrate that when rejection is powerfully elicited—by having people who recently experienced an unwanted break-up view a photograph of their ex-partner as they think about being rejected—areas that support the sensory components of physical pain (secondary somatosensory cortex; dorsal posterior insula) become active. We demonstrate the overlap between social rejection and physical pain in these areas by comparing both conditions in the same individuals using functional MRI. We further demonstrate the specificity of the secondary somatosensory cortex and dorsal posterior insula activity to physical pain by comparing activated locations in our study with a database of over 500 published studies. Activation in these regions was highly diagnostic of physical pain, with positive predictive values up to 88%. These results give new meaning to the idea that rejection “hurts.” They demonstrate that rejection and physical pain are similar not only in that they are both distressing—they share a common somatosensory representation as well.

Social rejection shares somatosensory representations with physical pain (full report PDF)
These results give new meaning to the idea that social rejection “hurts.” Current theorizing suggests that the brain systems that underlie social rejection developed by coopting brain circuits that support the affective component of physical pain (1, 2, 9). The current findings substantively extend these views by demonstrating that social rejection and physical pain are similar not only in that they are both distressing, they share a common representation in somatosensory brain systems as well. These findings offer new insight into how rejection experiences may lead to various physical pain disorders (e.g., somatoform disorders; fibromyalgia), highlighting the role that somatosensory processing may play in this process.

LiveScience - Mar 28/2011
Romantic Breakups Cause Real Pain by Charles Q. Choi, LiveScience Contributor

Wikipedia: Social rejection
Social rejection occurs when an individual is deliberately excluded from a social relationship or social interaction. The topic includes both interpersonal rejection (or peer rejection) and romantic rejection.

LiveScience - Feb 8/2007
Top 10 Amazing Facts About Your Heart
#9 - Broken Heart
Alas, a broken heart can cause one to swoon. A breakup with a loved one or news of a family death literally can lead to broken hearts in the form of heightened risk for heart attack, studies have shown. Such trauma can also trigger the release of stress hormones into the bloodstream that temporarily "stun" the heart. The resulting symptoms mimic those of a heart attack - chest pain and shortness of breath - but this type of achy heart can bounce back in days with some TLC and rest.

Google video search: bee gees how can you mend a broken heart


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Molly @ Postcards from a Peaceful Divorce said...

I thought I'd give you a link that I plan on blogging about someday soon. http://marinpsychologist.blogspot.com/2011/04/does-focusing-on-positive-help-your.html?spref=tw

Yes, our brains process a breakup the same way as we do physical pain. However, it also seems that the brain can override that pain if we focus our thoughts on the more positive aspects of our lives. Yes, I do see the glass half full.

Unknown said...

the mind is so powerful ... i DO know that emotional pain can bring the physical ... and it's brutal