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Rejection brings Actual Pain
Scans show the brain registers social pain much like internal injury.

By Colin Allen
October 17, 2003

Heartburn and broken hearts may not be so different--at least according to our brains. The mind responds to social rejection in much the same way as it does to physical pain, especially internal injury. The similarity reflects our deep-rooted need for social connection, researchers from the University of California at Los Angeles suggest.

For the study, 13 students agreed to have their brains scanned while playing a computer game designed to provoke feelings of social exclusion. In it, the player joins two computerized players tossing a ball. The students were led to believe that the players were other students playing a virtual game of catch.

In the first segment of the ball game, researchers told the subjects that "technical difficulties" prevented them from playing the game. In the second and third segments the computerized players play along with the student for a short time, but eventually snub the human and refuse to pass the ball.

The subjects reacted to this simulated social rejection in much the same way as they would to physical pain, according to scans of brain activity performed by functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Each time the subjects were excluded from playing, researchers found increased activity in the anterior cingulate cortex, which is linked to the pain response.

"We found that induced social injury looked very similar to induced physical injury," says Matt Lieberman, lead author of the study, which was published in Science in October. The brain finds social exclusion harmful, he explains, so it generates a pain response.

To explain why rejection hurts, Lieberman points to evolution. "There was already this machinery to pick up physical pain," he says. "Social pain piggybacked on top of it and took advantage of what was already there."