This post is also available in Dutch.
If you’ve ever gone through a bad breakup, you’ve probably experienced the phenomenon called “heartache” or “heartbreak.” Isn’t it interesting that we use expressions of pain to describe social rejection? Well, researchers have proposed that this isn’t just a coincidence—in fact, they believe that physical and social pain processing may be linked.
Me, feeling heartbroken after I was dumped by a suave Ken® doll. Image: iStockphoto.com
You may have used paracetamol (also called acetaminophen) to soothe various aches and pains. But did you know that it can also numb emotional pain?* People who take paracetamol daily feel less hurt after negative social interactions and show less activation in brain regions important for social and physical pain. So how can a drug intended for physical pain relief also reduce “social” pain? Some scientists have suggested that the same neural mechanisms may underlie both types of pain.
Pain in the brain
Researchers have proposed that as animals evolved complex social behavior, existing physical pain systems were co-opted to respond to social pain as well. Two brain regions, the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (dACC) and the anterior insula (aINS), are involved in both responses. Patients with damage to these areas report no pain in response to physically painful situations. Furthermore, these regions are activated when we feel excluded or look at pictures of loved ones who have passed away. However, a recent study suggests that although both social and physical pain activate these regions, they may activate different groups of brain cells within each region.
Rejection can make you numb
Did you know that immediately after we are excluded, we become emotionally numb? In one study, participants were given a personality questionnaire and told fake results: they would either have many rewarding relationships throughout life or likely end up alone. When asked to predict their future feelings, the “rejected” participants’ predictions were more neutral than those of the “accepted” participants. This emotional numbness resembles the physical numbness to pain, analgesia, that follows injury. And, interestingly, this emotional numbness is accompanied by physical numbness as well! Excluded individuals show higher pain thresholds and pain tolerance.
Our experiences of pain involve brain chemicals called opioids. Opioids relieve physical pain and increase feelings of euphoria. Endorphins are opioids that are released after injury to prevent the brain from receiving pain signals (hence why you don’t immediately feel the pain of slamming your fingers in the door!) As you may have predicted, opioids are also involved in social pain. People who have mutated opioid receptors are more sensitive to both physical pain and social rejection. They also display higher activation of the dACC and aINS when rejected.
So, the next time you’re dumped, don’t pop a paracetamol to numb your pain. Instead, take advantage of the opportunity to experiment with extreme sports while your pain tolerance is temporarily increased. Just kidding, don’t do that. I actually have no advice for dealing with your breakup…Breakups just hurt.
*Taking too much paracetamol is a really bad idea so taking it to numb emotional pain would be a really, really bad idea.
Video on the biology of heartbreak
This blog was written by Juliette.
Edited by Kasia.