The human fascination with love is just as strong as our obsession with heartbreak. It’s thrown in our faces every day in movies, songs and books.
But is a broken heart simply an abstract concept or are there real physical effects on the body and the brain?
Science can go a long way to explaining this phenomenon. You see, whenever you endure physical pain such as a cut or an injury, the anterior cingulate cortex in the brain is stimulated. Surprisingly it’s the same region of the brain that is activated when you feel excluded or experience the loss of a social relationship.
If we think about the ways in which we often describe lost love: ‘He ripped my heart out’, ‘It was a slap in the face’, ‘ I feel so broken’, ‘I’m emotionally scarred’, the list goes on… This use of a 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, that’s why wounded individuals will often go to great lengths to avoid the inevitable.
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 in 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 look out for you”. Just like your desire not to be burned by something hot again, animals desire not to be socially alone. The pain from both instances increases our chances 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 contributed to documented increased levels of depression, anxiety and loud crying in the subjects. For humans, a breakup, loss of a loved one or isolation can trigger a similar reaction creating the perception of physical pain.
But how can we alleviated this pain? After all, bandages or creams are only meant for physical wounds. Studies have shown that high levels of social support are related to lower levels a pain, whereas socially alienated individuals show poor adjustment and even slower recovery.
So if you’re feeling broken-hearted surround yourself with friends and family, as difficult as it may seem. If someone you know is suffering emotionally, be there for social support, because scientifically as humans we all just want to fit in somewhere and feel loved.
Related: The Science of Heartbreak