Romantic Rejection Hurts — Literally

Study: Rejection pains the brain just like holding a scalding cup of coffee

By Marielle Segarra
WBUR Intern

We’ve all heard the tortured breakup songs that talk about the pain of rejection. I get it. In the days and weeks after my last breakup, I told best friends, family members, postal workers, baristas, and fellow commuters exactly how I felt. It was as if someone had sucker-punched me in the gut, hit me over the head with a mallet, and kicked me down the stairs.

I now have scientific proof that I was not just being dramatic.

A University of Michigan study has found that social rejection activates some of the same regions of the brain as painful physical sensations.

The study, published yesterday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, hooked 40 recently heartbroken participants up to a machine that made their arms warm. Researchers measured participants’ brain activity when the stimulus was pleasantly warm and then again when it was painfully hot (probably at the level of holding a hot cup of coffee without the cardboard sleeve).

Then participants were shown two pictures, first of a friend, and then of their ex-boyfriends or girlfriends, who had broken up with them within the last two months. Researchers asked participants to recall the circumstances of their breakups. Wallowing in self-pity activated many of the same areas of participants’ brains as the hot stimulus. Continue reading