Why losing out in love is just a pain in the toe

October 10, 2003
By Danielle Demetriou

STUBBING A toe on a sharp object might not at first seem comparable to the heartache of being dumped by a lover.

But, despite their obvious differences, new scientific research revealed yesterday that both actions elicit the same physical pain - confirming the mantra of tortured romantics across the world that love really does hurt.

The research, conducted by a team of scientists at the University of California in Los Angeles, claimed to prove that the two neural zones which respond to physical pain also react to social exclusion.

The experiment was centred on monitoring the reaction of a series of volunteers who were "fooled" into thinking they had been left out of a ball-throwing game.

Their brains were scanned using a technique called functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) and the findings proved that the part of the brain which was normally reserved for physical pain was also activated by social pain.

While a cynical few might question how the painful legacy of splitting from a partner could possibly match that of a sore toe, scientists claimed that the research shed light on the pain associated with "broken hearts".

Publishing the findings in the journal Science, the researchers, led by Dr Naomi Eisenberger, said: "This study suggests that social pain is analogous in its neurocognitive function to physical pain, alerting us when we have sustained injury to our social connections, allowing restorative measures to be taken.

"Understanding the underlying commonalities between physical and social pain unearths new perspectives on issues such as why physical and social pain are affected similarly by both social support and neurochemical interventions, and why it `hurts' to lose someone we love."

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