Emotional pain produces the same physiological experiences as physical pain, according to a study by researchers from the Universities of Michigan and Colorado, and Columbia University. At least, both types of pain activate the same regions of the brain.
The scientists, led by Ethan Kross of the University of Michigan, recruited a select group of volunteers: people who had suffered a romantic break-up within the past six months that left them feeling rejected. Forty participants were found that fit those requirements. These unfortunate individuals were then subjected to both physical and emotional pain, all while being hooked up to fMRI machines to scan their brains.
For the emotional tests, the volunteers were shown pictures of either a good friend and asked to think of positive moments with that person, or of their ex-partner and asked to think about their recent break-up. The physical pain tests involved the application of heat (up to the sensation of holding a very hot cup of coffee) to an area on their forearms.
The same regions of the brain were involved in both physical and emotional distress. On the other hand, thinking pleasant thoughts about a friend did not stimulate that region. In other words, an agonizing social experience activates the areas of the brain associated specifically with pain, rather than those associated with other emotional content.
A person who has been abandoned by a loved one may not actually have a broken heart, but they may very well be experiencing real physical pain.