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
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
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.