I went on a date with this fella two weeks ago. And let me tell you, ladies- this fella was quite a catch. Smart, hilarious, ruggedly handsome and the owner of his own super-masculine business (which, might I add, I figured would come in handy should I ever need manly assistance around my house some day). This fella was the kind of fella that makes you think to yourself, “Man, I reallly don’t want to screw this one up.”
Needless to say, after a second date, I found myself getting the ol’ Butterfly Belly and Flush Face whenever Fella crossed my mind (which was approximately every 35 seconds, give or take). He and I texted and called each other continuously throughout the day, every day. I was certain that Fella was crazy about me, and I was crazy about Fella.
Then, abruptly, the calls and texts slowed down. And by “slowed down”, I mean stopped nearly completely.
Two nights ago I summoned the courage to question Fella about this. With a knotted stomach, pounding heart and froggy throat, I tripped over my tongue as I asked, “Are you still interested in seeing me?” As the fateful words, “we’ll see” passed through Fella’s lips, my heart sunk, my stomach flipped and my throat grew a lump roughly the size of West Virginia.
After the conversation I slumped down on my couch, staring blankly at the ceiling, mentally reviewing every miniscule moment with Fella, trying to pinpoint the exact second in which I personally shattered any potential for happily-ever-afterness. I laid there like a lifeless lump, feeling like someone was ripping out my guts, stabbing my heart with a samurai sword and beating my head with a blunt object of undetermined source. I was in pain.
But why? Why, if I was affected by internal emotional discord, was I experiencing such extreme physical pain?
Turns out, my body can’t tell the difference between the two.
In 2009 some super smart scientists from the University of Arizona and the University of Maryland conducted a study to figure out how our bodies interpret and synthesize social rejection. Forty people signed up for this study, not knowing that soon half of them would be tortured for the sake of science. These super smart scientists (Kross, Berman, Mischel, Smith and Wager) forced the participants to gaze at a photo of a recent former lover, of whom they still pined after, whilst thinking about this rejection of their undying love.
Using super cool brain scan techniques, the super smart (and sadistic) scientists found that the areas of the brain that were activated are the very same areas that activate when we feel physical pain. And these super smart and super sadistic scientists felt pretty confident about their findings because they were able to predict the specific brain activation with 88% accuracy.
You guys, I totally drew this diagram myself.
Here’s how it works:
We have this thing in our heads called a brain. And within this brain are all sorts of nifty areas that do all sorts of nifty things. One of those nifty things your brain can do is to manifest emotions. And the nifty part that’s responsible? It’s called the Limbic System. The limbic system is made up of a bunch of different parts, some of which you may have heard of before: hippocampus, amygdala, thalamus, fornix and so forth. The limbic system takes up a significant amount of the central interior part of your brain. As it should, since emotions are pretty significant.
The limbic system is pretty powerful too. So powerful, in fact, that it has the ability to totally override your sense of judgement and consequence (which is controlled by your prefrontal cortex). Think about it: Ever get really mad and say something you know you shouldn’t have said, but in that moment you just had to say it and it felt sooo gooood to let it out? Then later you had to apologize for that really nasty thing you said and admit that you didn’t really mean it (even if you really did)? You can thank your limbic system for that. It single-handedly blocked all neural communications from your prefrontal cortex that were desperately trying to scream at you that calling your boss a “mudderfunking crocksucker” was not a wise move. Hence why the term “flooded with emotion” is pretty spot on.
So, when your heart gets stomped on by some ruggedly handsome Fella, your limbic system gets all kinds of crazy activated and starts affecting the parts around it. One of those parts is the Insula. The insula is related to the limbic system, but not really considered to be part of it. Think of it like the limbic system’s cousin. Among lots of other stuff that is not totally, although is kind of, related to this blog topic, the insula controls our social emotions (and orgasms! Woo-hoo!). The insula takes all that crazy activation from the limbic system and interprets it into conscious emotional states. The insula makes us aware that we are experiencing emotions; usually the more basic ones, such as anger, fear, disgust, happiness and sadness.
So when Fella told me “we’ll see”, I was sad. I know this because my insula made me aware of it. Gee, thanks insula.
Side note about the insula- it also is home to these really awesome neurons called Mirror Neurons. These neurons are like, telepathic or some far-out stuff. No, really… they are. Mirror neurons tell us all about how other people are feeling and we, in turn, feel similarly. That’s what we call “interpersonal experience” and where empathy comes from. When Fella started feeling differently- I knew it because I felt it too. Thanks again, insula.
Meanwhile, the limbic system is still all wacky and activated and it starts to affect the Secondary Somatosensory Cortex too. This area of your brain reacts to physical sensations like light touch, abdominal area sensation and pain. Did you pick up on that? Your emotional center is activated and it activates areas of physical sensation. Are you making the connections yet? If not, your brain sure is. But it doesn’t end here.
The limbic system has more work to do and this is where the really good stuff starts happening. Your limbic system is going to activate just one more area: the Anterior Cingulate Cortex (ACC for short). This area does ALL KINDS of fun stuff inside your head. First of all, it’s the part of our brain that detects errors and conflict. When we make a mistake, the ACC sends out a distress signal that says there was a serious violation of our expectations and, in turn, we experience a response to the error to keep us from making the error again. In other words, it says, “this didn’t work. Don’t do that again. And in case you didn’t get the seriousness of this message, I’m going to make you feel bad about it too.”
For example, when I started pinching myself extremely hard in hopes I was dreaming the whole “we’ll see” incident, my ACC activated and told me that pinching was an error because I was damaging my skin. And to reinforce that I was damaging my skin, it sent out signals that caused pain to my skin. My ACC wanted to make sure that because I was not dreaming (which was a violation of my expectation that I was dreaming, in which case the pinching would not have been real pinching but rather dream pinching) that I understood the importance of not pinching myself again. My ACC made me feel bad about pinching myself and I stopped.
Another thing your ACC is responsible for is weighing the cost versus reward of an outcome, mostly when pertaining to emotional errors. Basically, it takes your emotional blunder, evaluates how bad the blunder was and then decides what should happen the next time you are faced with the same, or similar, potential for blunder.
My ACC told me that the cost of the “we’ll see” blunder was pretty significant and strongly advised me to avoid this blunder again in the future.
So now we know the ACC is connected to evaluating both physical and emotional experience. Hmmmm… interesting, right? But wait, there’s more: Like the limbic system, when your ACC gets crazy activated it starts instigating other areas around it too, especially when there’s all sorts of rewards and costs and evaluation of emotional blunders going on. The worse the blunder, the more intensely your ACC gets buzzing, and the more intensely you register physical pain, which makes you feel bad about the blunder and decreases the chances you’ll make that (ruggedly handsome) blunder again.
However, your ACC isn’t the one manifesting your physical pain. Your Vagus Nerve is.
Your vagus nerve is pretty stinkin’ awesome. It begins inside your brain near the ACC and heads through the medulla oblongata (always a fun word to say), then shoots down your brainstem and into your spinal cord before branching out to… wait for it, wait for it…
… your tongue, ears, throat, heart, lungs and digestive organs. Let’s repeat that in case you missed it: Your vagus nerve is connected to your tongue, ears, throat, heart, lungs and digestive organs. Got that? Ok.
Normally your vagus nerve likes to get buzzed. When activated by other parts of your brain, it lowers heart rate & blood pressure and helps keep your gastrointestinal organs out of trouble. Funny thing about your vagus nerve though- it doesn’t like to get buzzed by your ACC. They don’t get along so well. It’s like putting Yankees and Red Sox fans in the same room together: things tend to get ugly.
When your ACC is all crazy activated because of your emotional blunders and then buzzes the vagus nerve, the vagus nerve gets all irritated and annoyed but it can’t really do anything about it. Instead, it huffs and puffs and compensates by overstimulating your tongue, ears, throat, heart, lungs and digestive organs.
Here’s the part where it all comes together. Are you excited yet? No? Well you should be, because your tongue, ears, throat, heart, lungs and digestive organs are totally excited. Too excited, in fact. And what happens when your tongue, ears, throat, heart, lungs and digestive organs are over excited?
Your tongue gets tied.
Your ears ring.
Your throat gets all froggy and lumpy-like.
Your heart beats really, super fast.
Your lungs breathe faster and make you short of breath, which makes you feel all whoosy and pass-y out-y.
The muscles in your chest get tighter.
And your stomach gets sick.
That heartache you feel when someone who is really smart and funny and handsome says, “we’ll see”? That’s your heart rate increasing and the muscles in your chest getting all constricted.
That gut-wrenching feeling when you realize a person is not as crazy about you as you are about them? Totally your stomach and intestines kicking into overdrive.
And when you want to say something to Fella but you’re tripping over your words because your mouth isn’t working right and your throat can’t get any wind past that West Virginia in there and you end up sounding like a stuttering idiot? Yeah, that’s your muscles in your tongue and esophagus contracting and spasming out.
Aww shucks, vagus nerve. You shouldn’t have. No, really; you can stop any time now.
So there you have it, folks. It doesn’t matter if you burn my arm with a red hot poker or burn my heart with your red hot “we’ll see”. Either infliction activates the same areas of my brain, so it’s all the same pain in the end. My body can’t tell the difference.
But my body does know one thing: LOVE HURTS. (<– you should click that)
In case you thought I was born with all this incredible knowledge, while that’s very kind of you, I can only take partial credit. So here’s credit where credit is due:
What Causes Chest Pain When Feelings Are Hurt?
Why Do Emotions Hurt?
How Emotional Pain Can Really Hurt
Vagus Nerve Damage
And a very special thank you to Wikipedia and Google for all of your miscellaneous expertise.
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