Why love can hurt like a broken leg

Science Reporter
Daily Mail

Anyone who has been jilted will know that love can hurt.

Now scientists have established just how much. According to their research, a broken heart may be as painful as a broken leg.

Suffering emotional rejection or social exclusion triggers the same response in the brain as physical pain, say the scientists.

Hence, being rejected by a boyfriend or girlfriend is comparable to breaking a bone.

And suffering a snub from friends or being stood up on a date may produce a similar feeling of distress to when you stub your toe.

The findings give the lie to the saying, 'Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me'.

Study leader Naomi Eisenberger believes that the use of expressions such as 'hurt feelings' and 'love hurts' are more than mere sayings.

'A pattern of activations very similar to those found in studies of physical pain emerged during social exclusion, providing evidence that the experience and regulation of social and physical pain share a common basis,' she said.

Her team at the University of California conducted a study in which people played a video game with two other players, tossing and catching the ball between each other.

In reality, the other players' actions were directed by a computer but participants were told that they too were controlled by humans.

As the game was about to start, players were told that due to 'technical difficulties' they would have to watch the other two to begin with.

Eventually they were told the problems had been resolved and joined in a new game, participating fully.

Finally, a third game began in which participants received just seven throws before being deliberately ignored for a further 45 throws.

Scans from magnetic resonance imaging equipment showed increased activity in the brain's 'alarm system' - the anterior cingulate cortex - during the games where players were excluded.

Previous studies have already shown that experiencing pain, the most basic signal that 'something is wrong', also raises the alarm in the cortex. An infant's cry has also been shown to produce the same response in its mother's brain but this is the first study to show that it is linked with social rejection.

The latest findings, reported in the journal Science, also revealed increased activity in the brain's right ventral prefrontal cortex, an area used to counter feelings of pain, when participants felt they were being deliberately ignored.

This was not the case where players believed their exclusion was due to technical difficulties.