Love's 'Broken Heart' Can Activate Brain's Pain Center

Edward Smith, a psychologist at Columbia University says that the pain of rejection does indeed hurt. Using brain scans from 40 volunteers, Smith discovered that intense emotional pain activates the same neural pathways as physical pain.

Each of the volunteers had suffered a surprise breakup, having been rejected by their significant other. The researchers put the study participants through a fMRI scanner, asking them to rate their pain performing four tasks.

In the rejection portion, they were asked to rate how much they hurt when viewing a picture of their ex and a picture of a good friend with whom they had had good experiences. The participants then rated their pain during physical stimuli — one stimulus simulated the heat from holding a hot cup of coffee, while the other was a warm probe that was less painful.

As expected, the volunteers reported more pain when looking at a photo of their ex than a good friend. The brain scans confirmed that not only the emotional zones of the brain lit up, but those associated with pain. The same parts of the brain that activated when the subjects were holding a hot cup of coffee were similarly lit when they looked at images of the former love.
Prior research on pain and emotional distress had relied on less intense rejection, such as letting the subject s(he) wasn’t popular with a certain group or individual. In that research, the results didn’t activate pain pathways in the brain.
Researcher Smith contends that being rejected by a love partner is fundamentally a different degree of rejection, bringing a different set of results. via TIME magazine