We know that the placebo effect—just thinking you’re getting treatment, even if you’re not really—can have an impact on physical ailments. But now it turns out that it works for emotional pain, too. A new study looked at the effect of placebo treatments on heartbreak, and came up with two important discoveries: that emotional pain impacts the same parts of the brain as physical pain (meaning that yes, that pain you’re feeling is real and valid), and that it can be eased with placebo treatment.
The study, published in March in the Journal of Neuroscience, is the first to measure placebos’ effectiveness in easing the pain of heartbreak.
The subjects were 40 people who had experienced an “unwanted romantic breakup” in the past six months. They were asked to bring a photo of their ex, and of a same-sex platonic friend, to a brain-imaging lab. While inside an MRI machine, subjects were shown pictures of their exes and asked to recall the breakup. They were also subjected to painful physical stimulus—uncomfortable heat on their arms. While not identical, the brain reacted similarly to the physical pain of the heat and the emotional pain of seeing their exes’ faces. This in itself is an important discovery—it reinforces what anyone who’s ever been brokenhearted knows: emotional pain is real pain.
After the initial scan, participants were given a saline-solution nasal spray. Half were told what the spray really was, and the other half were told that the spray was a “powerful analgesic effective in reducing emotional pain.”
Those who were given the placebo—or told that the simple saline solution would ease their emotional pain—felt less physical pain and felt better emotionally when they went back into the MRI machine and were again exposed to the painful stimuli (both emotional and physical). The difference in their physiological response to the photos of their exes was remarkable:
Activity in the brain’s dorsolateral prefrontal cortex—an area involved with modulating emotions—increased sharply. Across the brain, areas associated with rejection quieted. Notably, after the placebo, when participants felt the best they also showed increased activity in an area of the midbrain called the periaqueductal gray (PAG). The PAG plays a key role in modulating levels of painkilling brain chemicals, or opioids, and feel-good neurotransmitters like dopamine.
Of course, a saline-solution nasal spray is not the real-life Eternal Sunshine cure for heartbreak. But this study sheds important light on how emotional pain functions on a neuro-chemical level, and understanding something is the first step toward treating it. The idea of a “treatment” for heartbreak raises all kinds of philosophical and ethical questions—just like the movie did—about whether we’d really want to erase that pain. The sting of heartbreak is a rite of passage, an important part of life; it teaches us a lot about who we are, and what we want (and don’t want) out of romantic relationships. But there also comes a point when we wish it would just stop, when we’re ready to move on but we’re still in too much pain.
That’s when this research may come in handy … if not as a stepping stone toward an actual “treatment,” than at least as validating, comforting evidence that the pain of heartbreak is real. If it’s tangible pain along the lines of a burn to the arm, we can more easily wrap our heads around the idea that it will eventually fade on its own, without any magic nasal sprays.
Lilly Dancyger is Deputy Editor of Narratively, and a freelance journalist based in New York City.