Broken Heart Burns Like Hot Coffee, Brain Study of Former Lovers Shows

Heartache over lost love is similar to the physical pain of spilling hot coffee on your lap, scientists studying brain scans say.

The sting of seeing photos of an ex-lover stimulated the same parts of the brain as intense heat applied to the arms of 40 people in a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The research builds on a 2010 study published in the journal Psychological Science that showed people who took the painkiller acetaminophen, sold by Johnson & Johnson as Tylenol, felt less rejected when excluded from a ball-passing game. While rejection and physical pain aren’t identical, they are more similar than anyone had realized, said Edward Smith, a psychology professor at Columbia University in New York and an author of today’s study.

“There may be something special about rejection,” Smith said in a telephone interview. “No other negative emotion, not anger and not fear, elicits reactions in the pain matrix of the brain.”

The brain scans showed involvement of the secondary somatosensory cortex, which processes types of sensations including light touch, pain, pressure and temperature. Also activated in both rejection and physical pain was the dorsal posterior insula, which senses temperature.

Photos and Heat

Participants were shown photographs of a former partner who dumped them and of a friend who was the same sex as their former partner. Then heat was applied to elicit a burning feeling on their left arms and, in a separate application, a warm stimulation. Patients rated how they felt after each trial on a distress scale, and underwent fMRI brain scans. The warmth and the friend served as controls.

“Spilling a hot cup of coffee on yourself and thinking about how rejected you feel when you look at the picture of a person that you recently experienced an unwanted breakup with may seem to elicit very different types of pain,” said Ethan Kross, a social psychologist at the University of Michigan and the article’s lead author, in a statement. “But this research shows that they may be even more similar than initially thought.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Elizabeth Lopatto in New York at elopatto@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Reg Gale at rgale5@bloomberg.net.

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