Love can cause weak knees, fluttery feelings, and sudden outbursts of song, but as any of the unhappy residents of Splitsville can tell you, it can also cause considerable pain. In the aftermath of a heartbreak, you might suffer blinding headaches or find a stubborn, persistent pain that settles in your chest and sticks around for weeks. Of course your heart has not actually broken, so why does your body experience real pain?
"We've learned that the experiences of physical and emotional pain are more similar than we thought a decade ago in terms of their underlying neural mechanisms," says Ethan Kross, a professor of psychology. "The experiences share some overlapping features at the neural level. In many ways, the research examining how physical and emotional pain compare at the neural level that has emerged over the past half-dozen years gives new meaning to the metaphors people often use to express emotional pain with physical language, like 'I feel hurt.'
“We’re getting a clearer understanding of how emotional experiences are tied to the body,” Kross says.
Hardwired for Heartbreak
For a 2011 study, Kross asked a group of people who had suffered a recent breakup to participate in two different kinds of painful experiences, and then he measured their reactions using an MRI. In the first experience, participants were exposed to heat that simulated the burning sensation you might get from a cup of hot coffee. In the second, participants were asked to recall specific feelings and experiences with their ex while looking at photographs of them.
Kross found that the brain networks that activate when people have been burned by hot coffee overlapped to some degree with those that activate when people recall having been spurned by a lover.
“There are neural correlates associated with the experience of emotional pain just as there are neural correlates associated with the experience of physical pain, and there is overlap between the two,” Kross says. “I think the scientific developments are telling us that there may be physical manifestations of emotional pain that can help be explained by how the brain works.”
While science is finding similarities between the systems, Kross stresses that emotional and physical pain are fundamentally distinct. “There is no question that there are differences between the two types of experiences,” he says.
But Kross says there is hope for people who are nursing the pain of a broken heart. His recent research with his graduate students shows that just by thinking you’re doing something to make yourself better you can make yourself feel better, too, even when that something is acting as a placebo.
“In some ways, what’s so interesting about placebos is they’re a vehicle for allowing our mind to reinterpret circumstances in ways that are enormously helpful,” Kross says, “but that we often can’t do that reinterpretation on our own for various reasons. We may not believe we have the ability to do it, so in a certain sense, we’re offloading the responsibility to a little pill or nasal spray, as in the case of our study. Then, lo and behold, our mind can do what it has the capacity to do, which is to help us experience less emotional pain.”
For the reluctant residents of Splitsville, this may be just the kind of heartwarming news they’ve been hoping for.