WASHINGTON-A rejected lover's broken
heart may cause as much distress in a pain center of the brain
as an actual physical injury, according to new research.
California researchers have found
a physiological basis for social pain by monitoring the brains
of people who thought they had been maliciously excluded from
a computer game by other players.
Naomi I. Eisenberger, a scientist
at the University of California, Los Angeles and the first author
of the study to be published Friday in the journal Science, said
the study suggests that the need for social inclusiveness is a
deep-seated part of what it means to be human.
"These findings show how deeply rooted
our need is for social connection," said Eisenberger. "There's
something about exclusion from others that is perceived as being
as harmful to our survival as something that can physically hurt
us, and our body automatically knows this."
Eisenberger and her co-authors created
a computer game in which test subjects were led to believe they
were playing ball with two other players. At some point, the other
players seemed to exclude the test subject from the game —
making it appear the test subject had been suddenly rejected and
blocked from playing with the group.
The shock and distress of this rejection
registered in the same part of the brain, called the anterior
cingulate cortex, that also responds to physical pain, Eisenberger
"The ACC is the same part of the
brain that has been found to be associated with the unpleasantness
of physical pain, the part of pain that really bothers us," Eisenberger
Eisenberger said the study suggests
that social exclusion of any sort —— divorce, not
being invited to a party, being turned down for a date ——
would cause distress in the ACC.
"You can imagine that this part of
the brain is active any time we are separated from our close companions,"
she said. "It would definitely be active when we experience a
loss," such as a death or the end of a love affair.
In a commentary in Science, Jaak
Panksepp of the department of psychology at Bowling Green State
University in Ohio, said earlier studies have shown that the anterior
cingulate cortex is linked to physical pain.
He said the new study by Eisenberger
and her co-authors demonstrates that the ACC is also activated
by the distress of social exclusion.
"Throughout history poets have written
about the pain of a broken heart," Panksepp said in his commentary.
"It seems that such poetic insights into the human condition are
now supported by neurophysiological findings."
The tendency to feel rejection as
an acute pain may have developed in humans as a defensive mechanism
for the species, said Eisenberger.
"Because we have such a long time
as infants and need to be taken care of, it is really important
that we stay close to the social group. If we don't we're not
going to survive," said Eisenberger. "The hypothesis is that the
social attachment system that makes sure we don't stray too far
from the group piggybacked onto the pain system to help our species
This suggests that the need to be
accepted as part of a social group is as important to humans as
avoiding other types of pain, she said.
Just as an infant may learn to avoid
fire by first being burned, humans may learn to stick together
because rejection causes distress in the pain center of the brain,
"If it hurts to be separated from
other people, then it will prevent us from straying too far from
the social group," she said.