Science has finally confirmed what
anyone who’s ever been in love already knows: Heartbreak really does hurt.
In a new study using functional
magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), researchers have found that the same brain
networks that are activated when you’re burned by hot coffee also light up when
you think about a lover who has spurned you.
In other words, the brain doesn’t
appear to firmly distinguish between physical pain and intense emotional pain.
Heartache and painful breakups are
“more than just metaphors,” says Ethan Kross, Ph.D., the lead
researcher and an assistant professor of psychology at the University of
Michigan, in Ann Arbor.
The study, which was published in
the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, illuminates the
role that feelings of rejection and other emotional trauma can play in the
development of chronic pain disorders such as fibromyalgia, Kross says.
Kross and his colleagues recruited
21 women and 19 men who had no history of chronic pain or mental illness but
who had all been dumped by a romantic partner within the previous six months.
The volunteers underwent fMRI scans
— which measure brain activity by tracking changes in blood flow — during two
In the first, a heat source
strapped to each subject’s left arm created physical pain akin to “holding
a hot cup of coffee without the sleeve,” Kross says.
In the second, the volunteers were
asked to look at photos of their lost loves and were prompted to remember
specific experiences they shared with that person.