In the Brain, Broken Hearts Hurt Like Broken Bones

Sticks and stones may break your bones, but names can hurt just as much. Indeed, according to converging evidence reported in a new review in Current Directions in Psychological Science, physical and social pain are processed in some of the same regions of the brain. Naomi Eisenberger, co-director of the Social Cognitive Neuroscience Lab at UCLA, published the first brain-imaging paper revealing the overlap in 2003. She had been studying participants’ reactions to being rejected by other players (actually just a computer opponent) in a video game. “The first time we noticed the similarity, I was analyzing data next to a colleague of mine who was analyzing data on physical pain in irritable bowel syndrome,” she says. “We noticed similarities in the way that the neural data looked.” Physical pain has two components, Eisenberger explains: sensory and emotional. The sensory part of physical pain is mapped in the brain depending on which part of the body is hurt, but the emotional component — how distressing your brain determines the pain to be — is registered in the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (dACC). That’s also where the sting of social pain is processed. “The affective component, which tells you more how much the pain is bothering [you], how much suffering it is causing — that experience seems to be more localized to the dACC and the anterior insula,” Eisenberger says. MORE: Why French Fries Are Such Good Comfort Food The dACC, which is rich in receptors for endorphins, the brain’s natural opioids, is also directly affected by opioid drugs including heroin and Oxycontin. That may help explain why one of the most common reports from patients who take such painkillers is not that their pain has disappeared entirely, but rather than it doesn’t torment them anymore. A similar experience is reported by chronic pain patients whose suffering is so intractable that they resort to brain surgery to remove parts of the dACC. “The patients will say, ‘Well, I can still feel [the pain], but it doesn’t bother me,’” Eisenberger notes. Eisenberger … Continue reading In the Brain, Broken Hearts Hurt Like Broken Bones