Heartache. A broken heart. A hurtful breakup. Is the language we use to describe the pain of romantic rejection just a metaphor, or could it capture a biological reality? That’s a question scientists are beginning to explore.
In a 2011 experiment, people who had recently experienced an unwanted breakup viewed a photograph of their ex-partner and thought about their rejection. As they did this, their brains were being scanned by fMRI. In another condition, the same individuals experienced intense physical pain from thermal stimulation to their forearm. During their physical pain, two brain areas (the secondary somatosensory cortex and the dorsal posterior insula) became activated; the same brain areas were activated when they thought about being rejected and looked at the image of the person who had broken their heart. Emotional pain really does hurt in a physical way.
The overlap in how emotional and physical pain are experienced and processed in the brain raises many questions. One that is often asked, with tongue in cheek, is whether it would help to take painkillers to deal with heartbreaks and the endless other forms of rejection and exclusion. Researchers on social pain get this question at the end of their talks from people trying to be funny — but as it turns out, the answer is a strong yes! “Take two aspirin and call me in the morning” would be a coldhearted response to a friend’s late-night report of fresh heartbreak, but it has a solid basis in the research.
Scientists at the University of California in Los Angeles gave volunteers either an over-the-counter (nonprescription) painkiller or a placebo to take every day over the course of three weeks. The volunteers monitored their levels of pain caused by social rejection in their everyday lives over those three weeks, unaware of whether they were taking the painkiller or the placebo. Those who were on the painkiller reported a significant reduction in their daily hurt feelings, beginning on average at day 9 and continuing to day 21, the last day of the study. Those taking the placebo showed no change.
Another group of volunteers took either the painkiller or the placebo, again without knowing what they were taking, and then experienced a social rejection while in the fMRI scanner. While their brains were being scanned, they played Cyberball, a virtual-reality game of catch from which they were eventually socially excluded: After seven tosses to them, they watched what looked like two other participants throw the ball to each other for 45 throws without ever throwing it to them. In response to the social exclusion, those who had been on the painkiller for three weeks had significantly less neural activity in the pain areas of their brains.
If over-the-counter painkillers don’t help soothe your heartbreak, another antidote remains. When feeling rejection pain, it helps to think about those to whom you are enduringly and securely attached. Just as looking at a picture of the person who rejected you can reactivate the pain of a broken heart, thinking about the people to whom you are deeply attached — people you love who love you back — can make it easier to overcome the kind of pain that could otherwise keep you trapped in your past.
From the book THE MARSHMALLOW TEST: Mastering Self-Control by Walter Mischel. Copyright © 2014 by Walter Mischel. Reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York, NY. All rights reserved.