The next time you are sitting in your room playing Whitney’s classic, “Why Does It Hurt So Bad?” on repeat one, there is now at least new research to answer that very question.

Psychologist Edward Smith and his team at Columbia University have found that intense emotional pain can activate the same neural pathways as physical pain.

The findings are the latest in a series of studies by psychologists linking emotional pain to the same networks that influence a very real physical pain. However, Smith’s study is the first to make the direct connection between rejection and physical pain.

As part of the study, Smith and his team examined the neurological patterns of 40 volunteers who had been rejected by their significant other. The key characteristic of the volunteers was that all of their heartbreaks had hit them by surprise. The researchers measured the responses of the volunteers through a functional MRI scanner asking them about their memories of their past love as well as their reactions to real pain from holding a piping hot cup of coffee.

According to the study’s results: “(the volunteer’s) brains showed that the pain extended beyond the regions normally associated with such emotional triggers. Even the physical areas that were activated during the hot physical stimulus were active when the subjects were looking at pictures of their exes.”

Smith says the study is the first step in taking another look at the boundaries between emotional and physical pain.

“What we are finding is that in addition to emotional distress, there is another component, and that’s the sensory experience of pain,” says Smith. “If you up the ante in the magnitude of the rejection experience, you now find that brain areas involved in the actual [physical] sensation of pain are involved as well.”


If nothing else, the research proves that the gut wrenching feeling of heartbreak is more than imagined. It may not be much consolidation, but in the midst of sniffles and a throbbing migraine, it’s good to know that the hurt isn’t just in your head.

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