Why a broken heart hurts so much
Social rejection may affect brain as much as physical
October 9, 2003
Oct. 9 A rejected loverís broken heart may cause as much
distress in a pain center of the brain as an actual physical injury,
according to new research.
RESEARCHERS have found a physiological basis for social pain by
monitoring the brains of people who thought they had been maliciously
excluded from a computer game by other players.
Naomi I. Eisenberger, a scientist at the University of California,
Los Angeles and the first author of the study to be published
Friday in the journal Science, said the study suggests that the
need for social inclusiveness is a deep-seated part of what it
means to be human.
"These findings show how deeply rooted our need is for social
connection, said Eisenberger. Theres something
about exclusion from others that is perceived as being as harmful
to our survival as something that can physically hurt us, and
our body automatically knows this.
and her co-authors created a computer game in which test subjects
were led to believe they were playing ball with two other players.
At some point, the other players seemed to exclude the test subject
from the game making it appear the test subject had been
suddenly rejected and blocked from playing with the group.
The shock and distress of this rejection registered in the same
part of the brain, called the anterior cingulate cortex, that
also responds to physical pain, Eisenberger said.
"The ACC is the same part of the brain that has been found
to be associated with the unpleasantness of physical pain, the
part of pain that really bothers us, Eisenberger said.
said the study suggests that social exclusion of any sort
divorce, not being invited to a party, being turned down for a
date would cause distress in the ACC.
You can imagine that this part of the brain is active any
time we are separated from our close companions, she said.
It would definitely be active when we experience a loss,
such as a death or the end of a love affair.
In a commentary in Science, Jaak Panksepp of the department
of psychology at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, said
earlier studies have shown that the anterior cingulate cortex
is linked to physical pain.
He said the new study by Eisenberger and her co-authors demonstrates
that the ACC is also activated by the distress of social exclusion.
Throughout history poets have written about the pain of
a broken heart, Panksepp said in his commentary. It
seems that such poetic insights into the human condition are now
supported by neurophysiological findings.
tendency to feel rejection as an acute pain may have developed
in humans as a defensive mechanism for the species, said Eisenberger.
we have such a long time as infants and need to be taken
care of, it is really important that we stay close to the social
group. If we dont were not going to survive,
said Eisenberger. The hypothesis is that the social attachment
system that makes sure we dont stray too far from the group
piggybacked onto the pain system to help our species survive.
This suggests that the need
to be accepted as part of a social group is as important to humans
as avoiding other types of pain, she said.
Just as an infant may learn
to avoid fire by first being burned, humans may learn to stick
together because rejection causes distress in the pain center
of the brain, said Eisenberger. If it hurts to be
separated from other people, then it will prevent us from straying
too far from the social group, she said.
The anterior cingulate
cortex, or ACC, registers as an orange spot on this functional
MRI scan. Scientists say the ACC, previously linked to the experience
of physical pain, is active during social distress as well.