Rejection Hurts So Bad
A shun is
as good as a kick in the shins, brain study finds
Thursday, October 9, 2003
If you feel
like you've been punched in the stomach after your lover walks
out on you, that may be because that is what it feels like.
Researchers at the University
of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), publishing in the Oct. 10
issue of Science, have found that emotional pain and physical
pain can stimulate the same parts of the brain.
Thirteen participants were
hooked up to functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) equipment
while they played a ball tossing video game called Cyberball.
The fMRI monitors blood flow to different parts of the brain.
The experiment involved
three different scenarios. In the first, participants were told
they could only watch, not play, due to technical difficulties
("nobody's fault" exclusion). In the second scenario, the participants
played ball with two other "players" (actually the computer).
In the third and final scenario, the two "players" who started
threw the ball only to each other, intentionally excluding the
There were blood flow changes
in two areas of the brain. Flow was increased to the anterior
cingulated cortex, which has previously been associated with the
experience of physical pain. The right ventral prefrontal cortex,
however was activated when the distress was least, indicating
that it might actually work to counteract the feeling of being
There is an evolutionary
reason for this finely tuned system: Mammals need their mothers.
And when their mothers (or the rest of the social group) are not
there, the brain sends out an urgent message.
"There are various things
in the world that humans need in order to survive, and the ones
we typically think of are to avoid physical harm," says senior
study author Matthew Lieberman, an assistant professor of psychology
at UCLA. "For human beings and mammals more generally, being socially
connected is just as important. You are more likely to die as
a result of social exclusion than of physical pain." Naomi Eisenberger,
a graduate student at UCLA, was the lead author of the paper.
"We think this part of the
brain functions as an alarm system telling the conscious, logical,
willful part of the brain that it's time to turn its attention
to some problem," Lieberman adds.
For 21st century mammals,
what this means is that social support systems are good for us.
"Emotional pain is an undesired psychological state of affairs,
and the less there is of that in social networks, the more harmoniously
people will interact," Jaak Panksepp, author of an accompanying
perspective article, told a group of reporters. "Coming to terms
with the true nature of emotional feelings in the brain is essential
for constructing the kinds of social institutions and habits that
can optimize human and animal welfare."
It may also convince rationalists
to pay more attention to the emotional side of life. "We tend
to think of social pain as not as real as physical pain," Lieberman
says. "At a minimum, this suggests that social pain isn't as imaginary,
that it's actually rooted in this deep evolutionary process, and
that it's a critical part of survival for children. It may not
be critical for survival for adults in some objective sense, but
because we've now evolved, we feel terrible when this alarm goes
The next step would be to
look at how social support systems can mitigate these painful
effects. "It would be important to see how social comfort actually
changes pain-induced distress, and which types of pain it can
modulate," Panksepp told HealthDay in a separate interview.
The study has an eerie,
real-life counterpart in the story of the New York City man, Antoine
Yates, who was housing a 425-pound tiger in his apartment. The
tiger was taken to a wildlife refuge in Ohio after mauling his
owner's leg. Noting the separation from his beloved if fearsome
pet, Yates told the New York Daily News, "The pain in my
leg is nothing compared to the pain to my heart."
Or maybe the two are more
alike than he realizes.
Hopefully, Yates has loved
ones who can ease his hurt. The tiger, meanwhile, is too ferocious
to be placed with other tigers. Caretakers are hoping he'll calm
down enough so that he, too, can have a support system.
For more information on
one form of social exclusion, bullying, visit the American
Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry or bullying.org.
And to learn about what hurts,
try the American
SOURCES: Matthew Lieberman, Ph.D., assistant professor, psychology,
University of California, Los Angeles; Jaak Panksepp, Ph.D., professor
emeritus, Bowling Green State University, Bowling Green, Ohio,
and head, affective neuroscience research, Falk Center for Molecular
Therapeutics, Northwestern University, Evanston, Ill.; Oct. 10,
2003 , Science
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