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Oh, the Pain!

Column, Friday, October 17, 2003
From Talking In My Sleep by JOSH KATZ


Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me. Right? Wrong!

Apparently that really annoying kid who kept saying this beat up expression on the elementary school playground was using a misused phrase all along. According to Dr. Matt Lieberman, an assistant professor at UCLA, words will hurt you, physically! It seems that when a person is punched in the stomach, the same part of his brain lights up on magnetic imaging scans as when a person feels rejected in some way or another. In other words, when you exclude the nerdy kid from your group because you don't want him to cramp your style, it elicits the same brain reaction as if you were kicking him in the nuts. Imagine that. Put yourself in the nerdy kid's position. Let's say you walk up to a group of "cooler" kids. "Hey," you say. "Do you think I can join you guys?" And then they kick you in the groin. It's almost the same thing.

You know that feeling you get in the pit of your stomach when you feel alienated and alone? That gnawing sensation that almost feels as though you took a kick to the stomach? Well, according to Lieberman's study, your brain thinks you did.

Lieberman's study proved that rejection can cause the mental feeling of physical pain by monitoring the responses of people as they played a video game that consisted of playing catch. Not too exciting by today's standards. In the midst of the game, the other players stop throwing the ball to the person being monitored despite the fact that he had signaled for the ball. As time went by, and the subject didn't get the ball, he felt more and more rejected, and the same part of his brain lit up as if he had been punched in the stomach. Now, if the volunteer being studied felt like he took a beating simply because he wasn't thrown the ball, imagine what he would feel like if he were rejected in a worse way, from real people, possibly those he knew and liked.

Many of us don't realize when we make fun of people we really hurt their feelings. And then again, others of us do. But if there is one thing that we can learn from this study, it is to keep our eyes open to how we treat people. We should be more alert of what we are doing and saying. Our words and actions may cause much more damage than we can even comprehend. And people don't forget. I recall quite clearly the time in high school gym class when I played goalie and I took a soccer ball to the nuts. A story written by a friend offers an emotional equivalent:

It was a cold, overcast day on the beaches of a New Jersey town for a camp trip. I don't recall how old I was, what the kids looked like, or why I had even come to the situation. However, I do remember two things: The physical pain caused by a boy much older than me as he struck me in the back, and the pain of my peers watching on, refusing to help as I ran away crying. I can truly say that this experience caused a greater hurt than any blow ever dealt by my older brother. It could've been that the bully had a freakish potency to his punch.

However, looking back on it, the pain was more likely exacerbated by the fact that I had no sympathizers and that I truly felt alienated as a result. Even my good friend failed to help me out in this situation, which only led to a more complete feeling of isolation. I felt completely outcast that week, which would explain why the pain remained so acute for so long. Needless to say, the awful beast and his group of friends actually lived in New Jersey, so in the end, I won. I did, however, forgive my friend, that dick.

I was that dick who didn't help my friend. We were only twelve years old, but he was a good friend, and I should not have just watched it happen. Completely frozen in the situation, I just could not do anything to help, probably because of the peer pressure that made me feel that if I had helped, I would be excluded too. But I was wrong.

My friend experienced double the pain on that cold, overcast New Jersey day. He was punched in the back, but that paled in comparison to the pain -- which Lieberman would argue has physical repercussions -- of utter alienation. He believed that he wasn't wanted in that group of kids. And even I didn't stand up for him. He was completely alone, and that hurt.

Lieberman's recent study makes it as clear as ever that our words and our actions are as powerful as our fists. And if anyone comes up to you and tells you, "sticks and stones will break my bones but words will never hurt me," try not to kick him in the nuts. Not even with your words.

My forgiving friend contributed to this column.

Josh Katz is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at jdk45@cornell.edu. Talking In My Sleep appears Fridays.

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