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Heartbreak activates pain areas in brain, study finds

Pictures and memories of exes activate same areas of brain as a heat source simulating a burning sensation in a 2011 study by Ethan Kross.

February 09, 2013

If you're joining in on Lonely Hearts Clubs this Valentine's Day, the physical feelings of a broken heart may be familiar.

"The idea that people experience pain after rejection may be more than just a metaphor," said Ethan Kross, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Michigan who has studied the merger of physical and psychological manifestations after such loss.

In his 2011 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Kross found that the areas of the brain that are activated when someone experiences physical pain are the same areas that are affected by emotional loss or heartbreak.

For the study, researchers recruited 40 people who had recently been dumped. (What a job to volunteer for!) Participants underwent MRI scans to measure their brain activity while being shown photos of their exes and while being prompted to remember specific experiences with them.

Then the researchers measured brain activity while the subjects were strapped to a heat source meant to simulate a burning sensation, similar to that of a hot cup of coffee.

They found that in both cases, the secondary somatosensory cortex and the dorsal posterior insula, areas of the brain typically stimulated with physical pain, were activated.

— Mikaela Conley

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