From literature to plays and movies throughout the world, humanity's fascination with love is just as strong as our obsession with heartbreak. But is a broken heart simply an abstract concept? Or are there real physical effects on the body and the brain?
Whenever you endure physical pain, such as a cut or injury, the Anterior Cingulate Cortex is stimulated. Surprisingly, it's the same region of the brain that's activated when you feel excluded or experience the lost of a social relationship. Perhaps physical pain and emotional pain aren't as different as we once thought.
Think about the ways in which we describe lost love. "He ripped my heart out!" "It was a slap in the face!" "I'm emotionally scarred!" This use of physical description paints a clear relationship, at least in language, between emotional and physical pain. In fact, studies have shown that human beings would rather be physically hurt than feel social exclusion. But, why would these two different experiences elicit the same feeling in our bodies?
It's clear that our bodies use physical pain to prevent the risk of imminent danger. But from an evolutionary perspective, anything that increases our overall survival and fitness as a species is likely to persist. The rise of relationships and social bonds between lovers and friends alike became an important part of survival for many species. You look out for me, and I'll look out for you.
And just like your desire to not be burned by hot coffee again, animals desire not to be socially alone. The pain from both instances increases our chance of survival by avoiding less desirable outcomes. You're more likely to survive and reproduce if you're not alone.
This can be seen in studies of primates, who when separated from loved ones experience an increase in the hormone cortisol and a decrease in the hormone norepinephrine, causing a major stress response. Ultimately, this contributes to the depression, anxiety and loud crying documented. For humans, a break up, lost of a loved one, or isolation can trigger a similar reaction, creating the perception of physical pain.
So how can we alleviate this pain? After all, band-aids or creams are meant for physical wounds. Studies have shown that high levels of social support are related to lower levels of pain, where socially alienated individuals show poor adjustment. So if you're feeling brokenhearted, surround yourself with friends and family, as difficult as it may seem. And if someone you know is suffering emotionally, be there for social support, because scientifically, as humans, we all just want to fit in somewhere.
This episode of Asapscience is supported by audible.com, the leading provider of audiobooks with over 150,000 downloadable titles across all types of literature. If you'd like to learn more about the brain, I recommend the book Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. You can download this audiobook or another of your choice for free at audible.com/asap. Special thanks to audible for making these videos possible, and for offering you a free audiobook at audible.com/asap.