askflipscience, heartbreak

Welcome to #AskFlipScience, where we answer even the strangest, silliest questions with science!

This week’s question: Why does heartbreak hurt?

I was watching Starting Over Again the other day, and I was doing pretty well until the movie reached that pivotal (and very meme-worthy) moment of Marco talking with Ginny. You know which scene I’m talking about. (Don’t deny it.)

At that point, I suddenly wondered about why heartbreak actually, physically hurts. After all, Ginny didn’t punch him in the chest. Why did it affect Marco so much?

But wait. Why did it affect me so much? Why is everyone who has ever been dumped in the history of humanity so affected? And why are #same and #relatable a thing? We deserve an explanation too, right?

It’s simple: because the brain interprets heartbreak as actual pain.

“It hurts, it hurts you know!”

Our brain has evolved through hundreds of years to become socially minded. Back then, when we were all still gathering firewood and hunting for our food, isolation or rejection from the group usually meant death. Staying together meant survival, and picking up on social cues was the key to that.

In order to cope, our brains came up with the concept of “social pain” — a way for us to realize which social situations needed our attention, and identify them as important things for us. Studies have shown that the pain that comes from rejection is processed by the same region in the brain that processes actual, physical injuries.

We’ve come a long way since living in caves, but our brains have more or less stayed the same since then. We’re still very much a species that survives by being with one another, so our brains interpret any loss of personal connections as us lowering our chances to survive.

Unbreak my heart (seriously, it’s a medical emergency)

This kind of pain isn’t just something that you can feel for months or years. In some cases, it can actually kill you.

Takotsubo cardiomyopathy is a condition when your heart literally fails to pump blood due to either stress or pain. It’s usually set off by things like social and romantic pain, which is why it’s also called “broken heart syndrome.”

Right now, we’re still not sure exactly why this happens. One theory is that stress hormones such as adrenaline (read: that feeling whenever you see a short message that just says, “We need to talk”) literally stun your heart into not functioning as intended.

Fortunately, death is rare, but heart failure can occur in 20 percent of these cases.

Physical pain and heartbreak may come from different things, but your brain thinks they’re quite similar. And while it can and will hurt, it’s also important to realize that like any cut or bruise you receive, the pain in your heart will eventually go away. 

At least, there’s enough science in there if you need an acceptable reason. Unlike the one your ex gave you.–MF

Cover photo: Burak Kostak/Pexels



Author: Kyle Edralin

A writer, creative, and craftsman – Kyle (or as his friends call him, Phenex) trawls the internet for interesting science stories to share to the aforementioned friends. He has since decided to bring this pursuit to a much wider audience, and is working delivering this kind of information in a way that makes much more sense than his usual ramblings. He is also very fond of penguins.