A broken heart hurts thusly

Why a broken heart really hurts

The secret of how our mind processes emotional pain ought to change our outlook, says psychologist Sian Beilock

Sunday 13 September 2015 04.30 EDT Last modified on Monday 14 September 2015 04.45 EDT

Social exclusion is a normal part of life. We have all, at one time or another, felt disliked at work, spurned by a partner or snubbed by friends. Even though it’s unpleasant, social rejection seems pretty different from a physical injury. Yet these experiences share a common biological substrate in the brain.

For decades, neuroscientists have been aware that a specific brain circuit is involved in registering physical pain. Whether you get pricked with a needle or sprain your ankle, many of the same neural circuits come alive to process the pain: the insula, the cingulate cortex and the somatosensory cortex. Scientists have discovered that some of those same neural tissues also give rise to painful feelings and emotions. In other words: we understand “hurt feelings” or a “broken heart” physically.

In 2003 two UCLA neuroscientists, Naomi Eisenberger and Matt Lieberman, asked volunteers to take part in a computer game known as Cyberball. Cyberball appears to be a virtual game of catch with two other players whose computer is networked to the volunteer’s. The volunteer can’t see the other people playing but he’s told their names, ages, their interests and backgrounds. The three play catch, but at some point the other two players stop including the volunteer, tossing the ball only to each other. He can only sit and watch as he’s excluded.

In reality, there aren’t any other players; the game is controlled by a computer. But the volunteers don’t know this. While the volunteer played and then was excluded from the game, scientists peered inside his brain and discovered that part of the neural pain matrix – specifically the insula and the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) – came alive. Along with its role in processing negative emotions, the ACC acts as a neural alarm system, giving rise to the realisation that something is wrong. (The ACC is often talked about as our “Oh, shit” sensor.) Physical pain, the most basic signal that there is a problem, activates this brain area.

Evolution’s solution to our need for caretaking has instilled in us a need for social connection and a sense of distress when those connections are severed. Because the brain doesn’t always make a clear distinction between physical and social pain, some of the ways we go about alleviating physical pain can help lessen social pain. When people take paracetamol over the course of several weeks, they report less daily social pain, and their brain is less reactive to social rejection.

Understanding the link between the mental and the physical can give us clues about how best to interact with others. At work, for instance, blaming a colleague for a failed project may trigger a cascade of neural responses in their pain matrix: a response likely to result in less productivity. When our social alarm systems are triggered, we have less brainpower to think about the task at hand. But when we feel connected, we work better. So fostering relationships that help teams of people feel connected might do more to boost work performance. In other words, those team-building exercises that encourage you to feel more physically trusting towards your colleague? They may help you feel more mentally connected, too.

Our mental and physical worlds cannot be carved up into neat, separate boxes. Most people take care not to cause each other physical pain – perhaps a better understanding of how our minds work will encourage us to take more care not to cause emotional distress, either.

How The Body Knows its Mind by Sian Beilock is published by Constable & Robinson at £12.99. To order a copy for £10.39, go to bookshoptheguardian.com

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