I got them anterior cingulate cortex blues

Science discovers: It really does hurt when she leaves


October 19, 2003|By M. Dion Thompson | M. Dion Thompson,Sun Staff

When it comes to affairs of the heart, science is always playing catch-up to art. This week researchers and social psychologists published a report that tells us what poets and blues singers have known all along: It hurts to be rejected -- really hurts.

You probably already knew that the sinking feeling in your gut and the emotional pain that makes it seem as if your heart is about to implode were not just your imagination. As it turns out, that was your anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) kicking in. The ACC, a center for recording our emotional responses to pain, reacts the same way to a punch as to a snub. At least that's what the folks in the lab coats say.

This is serious news; otherwise it would not have turned up in the Oct. 10 issue of the journal Science.

Now, a reasoned, dispassionate, scientific investigation of what goes on in our gray matter carries a lot of weight in some circles. And yet, Robert Johnson, one of the greatest bluesmen ever to come out of Mississippi, left us his own succinct discourse on the physical manifestations of emotional pain 60 years ago.

In his song, "Stones In My Passway," he sings: "I have pains in my heart. They have taken my appetite."

Of course, science cannot content itself with the psycho-emotional universe found in a few verses wrapped around a simple 1-4-5 chord progression. Brain-imaging studies have to be done. Experts must be found and consulted. Expensive machines that look like something envisioned by science-fiction author Arthur C. Clarke must be plugged in and hooked up.

In this case, social psychologists from the University of California, Los Angeles, and Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, teamed up to search for evidence of our responses to heartbreak, loss, separation.

Being kicked to the curb, or being odd man out, is bad for your health. For our earliest ancestors, it could have meant the difference between life and death. Nothing quite that dire went on in the laboratory. During the research, a three-way ball toss ended up excluding the subjects. Ouch. One researcher described the resulting pain as "social distress."

Bessie Smith had another name for it. She called it the "Bleeding Hearted Blues," and in 1923 she sang: "Ah, your heart is aching. Yes, it's almost breaking. No one to tell your troubles to. That's the time when you hang your head and begin to cry."

With the latest findings now registered, codified and filed, who knows where the social scientists and researchers will turn next? Perhaps it is only a matter of time before they move into the world of sympathy pains, that curious ability we humans have of being able to tap into another's sorrow and make it our own.

In this, however, the researchers and their cohorts in the lab again will be a few steps behind the blues. Elmore James laid the issue to rest a half-century ago when he sang: "When things go wrong, go wrong with you. It hurts me too."

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