For your brain, romantic rejection is the same thing as being physically burned

When your sweetheart dumps you, there's a reason why it hurts so much. It turns out your brain registers the psychological hell in exactly the same way it registers physical pain.

A group of scientists used fMRI scans to study the brains of people dealing with being rejected, and compared them to the brains of people experiencing physical pain. They found that the exact same regions of the brain are involved in processing both experiences. For humans, social rejection is tantamount to literal injury.

Write the authors in a paper published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences:

We tested this hypothesis by recruiting 40 individuals who felt intensely rejected as a result of recently experiencing an unwanted romantic relationship break-up. 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.

And indeed, they saw the same regions of the brain lighting up during both physical and mental tasks - specifically, "areas that support the sensory components of physical pain (secondary somatosensory cortex; dorsal posterior insula)." The researchers say that their work could shed light on why different kinds of social rejection can lead to physical pain and other ailments. Ultimately, they say, our brains reveal an intensely strong connection between emotions and physical sensations. An interesting area for future research would be whether witnessing somebody else's distress also affects our brains the same way physical pain does - in other words, do we literally feel the pain of others?

Read the full scientific paper via PNAS