Sure, a broken heart might feel like it's actually broken, but a breakup is probably not going to send you into cardiac arrest. All pains are not created equal, and new research is beginning to decipher how the pain of rejection and that of physical harm act differently in the brain.
The study, published online yesterday in Nature Communications, used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to look at the brain activity of 59 participants while they underwent two different tasks. In one, they were cued to remember a time when they were rejected by a partner. In the other, they were given a moderately painful "thermal stimulation" to the left forearm. As a control measure, another 91 participants were told to relax with their eyes open for about five minutes.
Results showed that the two types of pain were correlated with activity in similar brain regions. But, one area in particular — the dorsal anterior cingulate — showed significantly different patterns of activation during the rejection and physical-pain tasks. This region is part of the emotion-processing limbic system and has previously been implicated in making decisions and adapting our behavior. So, although the two types of hurt act, in part, on the same brain area, these new results suggest how they are still interpreted and felt differently.
This is especially interesting because previous studies have suggested that the two types of pain share nearly indistinguishable neural pathways. We know that physical pain tends to come with a distinctly emotional or behavioral component, which has been well-documented in the brain. But, it seems like the two types may only start out the same; then, social pain sort of piggybacks off of that initial "general pain" signal, developing into something different. So, perhaps it's no surprise that our sad, hurt pride is both painful and persistent, while a sore muscle just needs some Advil.