Wait, So Now Physical and Emotional Pain Aren’t the Same Thing?

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Suffering woman lying on bed touching forehead, (B&W),
Photo: George Marks/Getty Images

In recent years, researchers and the public have, to a certain extent, latched onto the idea that there are important similarities between physical and emotional pain — some studies have even appeared to show that over-the-counter painkillers can help dull the sting of social rejection. New research just published in Nature, though, complicates the picture: At the very least, pain and rejection appear to show up as distinct “representations” in fMRI (brain scan) readings of study participants.

A team led by researchers at the University of Colorado, Boulder, conducted fMRI scans of participants while they experienced either painful heat or viewed photos of former friends and romantic partners (fun study!). Past, similar work has shown general similarities in which brain areas “light up” during such scenarios, but this study dug in a bit deeper.

This time around, the researchers found that "[r]ather than co-opting pain circuitry, rejection involves distinct affective representations in humans." This, according to the authors, is the first-ever evidence that "pain and rejection do not share neural representations within core pain-processing brain regions."

The standard cautions apply: In this case, the authors write, maybe in-the-moment emotional pain would elicit a different neural representation from what you get when a subject looks at a photograph. But this study still adds some nuance to the very complex issue of how our brains deal with negative feelings.