Of all pains, the greatest pain,
Is to love, and to love in vain.
Is to love, and to love in vain.
A year ago, I wrote an article (Of Romantic Rejection and Pain) on how the experience of heartache is not only symbolic but also real. A study by Nathan DeWall and his colleagues from University of Kentucky has shown through fMRI scans that emotional pain like being romantically rejected affects the same primary brain regions as that of physical pain.
But is it all in the brain? I am no stranger to rejections, socially or romantically. And I know what rejection feels like - sometimes it is like your heart is being crushed by a hand, and on other times, it feels like your heart is being pricked by thorns. So one might ask, is your heart just a muscle for pumping blood, and if so, is being heartbroken only symbolic?
Current research published in Psychological Science (August 2010) by Bregtje Moor, Eveline Crone and Maurits van der Molen of the University of Amsterdam and Leiden University in the Netherlands investigated if rejection affects the parasympathetic nervous system, which in turns, slows the heart rate.
Participants were asked to submit a portrait photograph of themselves weeks prior to the experiment and were led to believe that other individuals of the same age would look at the photos and decide whether they liked the person or not.
A few weeks after, each volunteer came to the laboratory. They had wires placed on their chest for an electrocardiogram while they view 120 photos of different faces they didn’t know. For each face, they were asked to guess whether that person liked them or not (a social judgment task). Afterwards, they were told whether the person actually “liked” them or not. But unknown to the participants, the feedback was a randomly computer generated response.
Also, to determine if social rejection really slows the heart drastically compared to other feedback, the participants were asked to judge whether the person in the photograph was 21 years of age or older (an age judgment task). Feedback was also given if participants accurately predicted the age of the other person.
Results have shown that in any feedback, participants’ heart rates slow down but recover back to baseline very quickly. But when given negative feedback (like when participants wrongly guessed the age of the person in the picture), the recovery was delayed.
But when they were told the person in the photograph didn’t like them, the heart rate dropped further and was slower to get back up to the usual rate. Furthermore, participants exhibit a pronounced heart rate slowing - the authors are saying that in effect, a “heartbrake” – when participants expected that the other person likes them!
Thus, UNexpected rejection brakes the heart more than expected rejection!
Then I asked, how does one love: to love with abandon or to love hesitatingly (half expecting to be rejected)?
Although this deserves another blog entry, I know that some hearts are adventurous, some hearts are fearful. Some hearts are resilient, some hearts are exhausted. But one thing I am sure of love - either successful or jilted - love is not for the weak of heart.
Moor, B., Crone, E., & Van der Molen, M. (2010). The heartbrake of social rejection: Heart Rate deceleration in response to unexpected peer rejection. Psychological Science, 21(9), 1326-1333. (Download article here).