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."