Hurt Feelings Truly Hurt:
Snub or sting, brain feels the same pain

By Daniel DeNoon
WebMD Medical News
Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on Friday, October 10, 2003

The pain of hurt feelings is as real as the pain of physical injury, new brain studies show.

The findings appear in the Oct. 10 issue of the journal Science. UCLA researcher Matthew D. Lieberman, PhD, used real-time brain scans to map brain activity in people feeling social distress.

The findings: The areas of the brain that light up when a person feels physical pain also light up when a person's feelings are hurt.

"We use physical metaphors to describe social pain like 'a broken heart' or 'hurt feelings,'" Lieberman says in a news release. "Now we see that there is a good reason for this."

The Pain of Monkey-in-the-Middle

Remarkably, the experiment by Lieberman and co-workers Naomi I. Eisenberger and Kipling D. Williams, PhD, didn't hurt the 13 student volunteers very much.

Encased in an MRI brain-scanning machine, the students played a simple video game. They were one of three players tossing a virtual ball to one another. At first, the students had to watch as the other two players tossed the ball. Then their controls became active, and they played for awhile. But soon the two other players -- computerized stooges, really -- played only with each other. As the students realized they were being left out, it hurt.

This made the area associated with pain light up. The more activity in a student's pain area, the more painful the student rated the experience.

"We can say being excluded doesn't matter, but rejection of any form still appears to register automatically in the brain," Lieberman says.

The Healing Power of Language

But the pain area wasn't the only part of the brain to become active. Being left out also activated an area associated with language and the regulation of emotion. Students with more activity in this area reported less pain.

"Verbalizing distress may partly shut down the areas of the brain that register distress," Lieberman says. "The regulating abilities of the prefrontal cortex may be why therapy and expressing painful feelings in poems and diaries is therapeutic."

Humans Are Social Animals

Why did the human brain evolve to feel emotional pain? In this we aren't alone. Social loss triggers distress signals in the brains of other animals whose survival depends on social bonds, notes an accompanying editorial by Jaak Panksepp, PhD. Panksepp is a researcher at Bowling Green State University, Bowling Green, Ohio, and Northwestern University, Evanston, Ill.

"Psychological pain in humans, especially grief and intense loneliness, may share some of the same neural pathways that elaborate physical pain," Panksepp writes.

The reason appears to be survival. Emotional pain hurts. We move closer to others to relieve the pain. Over millions of years, we've evolved this to a fine art.

"These findings show how deeply rooted our need is for social connection," Eisenberger says in a news release. "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."

Love Conquers Pain

If all this is true -- and more study is needed -- it stands to reason that love might be an antidote.

"Throughout history, poets have written about the pain of a broken heart. It seems that such poetic insights into the human condition are now supported by neurophysiological findings," Panksepp notes. "Will the opposite also prove to be the case -- that socially supportive and loving feelings reduce the sting of pain? A reasonable working hypothesis is that social feelings such as love are constructed from brain neural circuits that alleviate the feelings of social isolation."

SOURCES: Eisenberger, N.I. Science, Oct. 10, 2003; vol 302: pp 290-292. Panksepp, J. Science, Oct. 10, 2003; vol 302. News release, University of California, Los Angeles.