rejection affects the brain just like a physical injury
By DEBORAH SMITH
October 16, 2003
Poets have written at length
about the pain of a broken heart, and from childhood on we talk
about others having hurt our feelings.
Using these physical metaphors to
describe our emotions turns out to make sense, say researchers
who have found that social rejection really does hurt.
By studying young people who were
distressed at being excluded from a game, an international team
of psychologists that includes Professor Kipling Williams of Macquarie
University has found that two key areas of the brain respond to
the pain of rejection in the same way as physical pain.
"While everyone accepts that physical
pain is real, people are tempted to think social pain is just
in the head," says another team member, Matthew Lieberman, of
the University of California, Los Angeles. "But physical and social
pain may be more similar than we realised."
Humans are a gregarious lot and,
in an evolutionary sense, much of our success as a species is
due to our ability to co-operate with each other.
The psychologists believe the pain
of being rejected evolved because social bonds are so important
for a person's survival.
"Going back 50,000 years, social
distance from a group could lead to death - and still does for
most infant mammals," says Lieberman. "We may have evolved a sensitivity
to anything that would indicate that we're being excluded. This
automatic alarm may be a signal for us to re-establish social
bonds before harm befalls us."
When people do become socially excluded
for a long time, not surprisingly it can have a highly detrimental
effect on mental wellbeing.
Associate Professor William von Hippel,
a University of NSW psychologist who is helping Williams organise
a conference on the issue, says that in a troubled world it is
more important than ever to learn more about the causes and effects
of social rejection.
Excluding people can increase their
risk of depression, suicide and associating with fringe groups,
which can draw them into anti-social behaviour.
It can even lead to mass killings.
Not everyone who is socially excluded becomes violent, says von
Hippel, "but school shootings . . . all these sorts of extreme
cases are often carried out by people who have experienced a lot
of social rejection".
The latest study on rejection, reported
in the journal Science, used a computer game called Cyberball
that Williams and his students made. In it two figures throw a
ball to each other and to the human player.
The brains of 13 young people were
monitored by functional magnetic resonance imaging as they played
three rounds of the game. They were told the computer figures
represented real people playing elsewhere.
In the first round they were told
they could not join in the game because of technical problems.
In the second round they all played happily. Soon after the third
round began, the computer figures stopped throwing the ball to
the real player.
The brain scans revealed that there
was heightened activity in a region called the anterior cingulate,
which is associated with physical pain, in the first and the third
Even though the players knew they
had not been actively snubbed in the first round, the rejection
still registered automatically in the brain, says Lieberman.
The more distressed the players
felt about being excluded in the third round, the more active
their pain region was.
In the third round, elevated levels
of activity were also detected in another area called the right
ventral prefrontal cortex, which is associated with thinking about
emotions and self-control. The more active this region, the less
active the pain region, which suggests it helps people cope better
with getting the cold shoulder.
Social ostracism deprives people
of four basic needs: a sense of belonging, control, self-esteem
and meaningful existence. But Williams's research has also shown
it can lead not just to antisocial behaviour, but also to "pro-social"
behaviour, where shunned people work harder to try to please their
Commenting on the latest study,
Professor Jaak Panksepp of Northwestern University in Illinois,
says brain scans could also throw light on the nature of love.
"A reasonable working hypothesis
is that social feelings such as love are constructed partly from
brain neural circuits that alleviate the feelings of social isolation,"