Lead author Ethan Kross and Marc Berman of the University of Michigan, Walter Mischel of Columbia University, Edward Smith of Columbia University and the New York State Psychiatric Institute, and Tor Wager of the University of Colorado at Boulder recruited 40 men and women who had an unwanted romantic breakup within the past six months that left them feeling intensely rejected.
"On the surface, 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."
Participants were asked to look at a photo of their ex-partner and think about how they felt during their breakup or view a photo of a friend and think of a recent positive experience with that person, while undergoing functional magnetic resonance imaging scans.
A device was attached to each participant's left forearm that delivered a painful but tolerable stimulation, and some delivered non-painful, warm stimulation.
The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found there is neural overlap in brain regions -- the secondary somatosensory cortex and the dorsal posterior insula -- that become active when people experience painful sensations.