Monday, April 4, 2011

The Physical Pain of Heartbreak

By Dr. Tony Scinta, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Psychology

When it comes to breaking bones, “sticks and stones” still have an edge on words, but both may inflict a very similar kind of pain.  At least that’s the conclusion being drawn by social psychologists at the University of Michigan.  They found that social rejection – for example, a nasty break-up – activates the same region of the brain associated with physical pain.

To students who study psychology at NSC, the connection should not come as a surprise.  A host of psychological studies have demonstrated a robust link between physical well-being and social, psychological, and emotional factors.  For example, students in Health Psychology (PSY 470) learn that social support is associated with mortality rates – older individuals who have plenty of available friends and family actually live longer than their less supported peers (e.g., Berkman, 1985). 

Likewise, social psychologists have long known that environmental and psychological factors can exert an influence on physical aspects of a person, but we also know that physical processes can have a meaningful impact on our perceptions and attitudes.  For example, research has shown that being physiologically aroused – sweaty palms, a thumping heart – for any reason, even exercise, can lead a person to be more physically attracted to someone else (Dutton & Aron, 1974). 

The moral of the story, aside from the suggestion to take your next date to a scary movie instead of a romantic one, is that emotional, psychological, and physioloigical factors are intertwined in surprising or important ways.  For experimental psychologists, the fun is in determining how the different pieces of the puzzle fit together.

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