Researchers: 'Broken Heart' Pain Does Exist
Exclusion triggers response in brain

October 10, 2003

WASHINGTON -- A new study says there's more truth to the pain of a broken heart than you may think.

Researchers at the University of California-Los Angeles said hurt feelings may cause as much distress in the brain as physical injury.

They used magnetic resonance imaging to monitor the brains of 13 undergraduate students who thought they were maliciously excluded from a computer game by other players. They found that the shock and distress of the rejection registered in the the anterior cingulate cortex, or ACC, the same part of the brain that responds to physical pain.

The study suggests that social exclusions -- like divorce, death, or not being invited to a party -- cause distress in the ACC. Researchers say the need for social inclusiveness is a deep-seated part of what it means to be human.

"While everyone accepts that physical pain is real, people are tempted to think that social pain is just in their heads," said researcher Matthew Lieberman, an assistant professor of psychology at UCLA. "But physical and social pain may be more similar than we realized."

The study is published in Friday's issue of the journal Science.

"These findings show how deeply rooted our need is for social connection," said Naomi Eisenberger, a Ph.D. candidate in social psychology at UCLA. "There's 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."

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