Social and romantic rejection can cause very real and unpleasant pain. But it's not because we've internalized centuries of poetry and sappy movies; a new study finds there is an actual neurological mechanism at work.
A team of psychologists at the University of California, Los Angeles, conducted a study to determine the relationship between a pain susceptibility gene OPRM1 and emotional pain. They polled 122 participants about their emotional and physical reactions to social situations, especially social exclusion. They also created a virtual social exclusion scenario in which 31 of the participants were excluded during a ball-tossing computer game while researchers monitored their brain activity.
They found that the same variation of the OPRM1 pain gene that has been linked with high susceptibility to physical pain also correlates to high susceptibility to emotional pain. When participants with this rare variation were excluded from the computer game, there was greater activity in the pain-related regions of their brains than in the brains of people with more common variations of the gene.
This suggests that the gene may be responsible for a neurological mechanism that triggers pain receptors when an individual feels social rejection. And study co-author Naomi Eisenberger suggests that such a mechanism may have driven some humans to form evolutionarily beneficial social groups:
Because social connection is so important, feeling literally hurt by not having social connections may be an adaptive way to make sure we keep them. Over the course of evolution, the social attachment system, which ensures social connection, may have actually borrowed some of the mechanisms of the pain system to maintain social connections.
Still no word, though, on whether a person can, in fact, die of a broken heart.