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
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 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 experiment by Lieberman and co-workers Naomi I. Eisenberger
and Kipling D. Williams, PhD, didn't hurt the 13 student volunteers
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.
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
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."
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,
pain in humans, especially grief and intense loneliness, may share
some of the same neural pathways that elaborate physical pain,"
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.
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
If all this
is true -- and more study is needed -- it stands to reason that
love might be an antidote.
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
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,