Brain Does Not Distinquish Between Emotional Rejection & Physical Pain
fMRI, or functional magnetic resonance imaging, allows researchers to follow what's happening in the brain as it is happening, literally, in real time. Psychologists at the University of Michigan and Columbia University utilized fMRI technology to compare the brain's activity during physical pain and simulated emotional pain.
Recruits for the study were 21 women and 19 men who had no history of chronic pain or mental illness, but had been 'dumped' by a romantic partner within the prior six months. Each participant underwent two painful tasks....
In the first a heat source wrapped around the subject's arm created a physical pain equivalent to holding a paper cup of hot coffee without a cup sleeve. In the second, volunteers looked at photos of the person who rejected them and were encouraged to remember the rejection experience they suffered.
The results showed that brain activity involved in recalling rejection was comparable to the activity of the brain demonstrated during the acute pain administered in the experiment - that the brain lit up in the same regions, the secondary somatosensory cortex and the dorsal posterior insula, in both pain situations.
The researchers had employed fMRI technology to study the effects of various other emotions like fear, anxiety, anger and sadness, but the brain's physical pain responses were not triggered. It may be that romantic breakups are much more painful than other negative emotional experiences, that the break-ups occurred relatively recently, or that rejection has more lasting effects.
Another possibility is that emotions like fear, anger, and anxiety are more temporal in nature and, unless they cause profound trauma, they do not trigger the same intensity of response as emotional rejection.
What this study does do is reinforce the fact that there is a distinct physiological link between emotional and physical pain and that for people with chronic pain, such as fibromyalgia, more emotional work may need to be explored to remediate both the mental and physical pain contributions.
Read the complete study, published in PNAS, Social rejection shares somatosensory representation with physical pain,