Social Rejection Felt As Pain by Brain
By Ricky James
Posted on Wednesday, October 15th, 2003
Like many of you,
in my younger days I've suffered my share of torment at the hands
of bullies who stole my taped glasses and teased me mercilessly
for my intelligence as cruel children often do. Eric Harris and
Dylan Klebold were also bullied before they went on their murderous
spree at Columbine High School. I 100% do not condone their actions
that terrible day, but I do believe that acknowledging the bullying
they endured is a necessity for understanding their actions and
the actions of others like them. Chanting "Sticks and stones
may break my bones, but words will never harm them" isn't
a viable solution to their problems - and now we've discovered
part of the reason why. Turns out the social torment of bullying
is interpreted by the brain as actual pain. The intentional infliction
of pain is the definition of torture. Ergo, bullies are torturers.
From a UCLA press release: Two key areas of the brain appear to
respond to the pain of rejection in the same way as physical pain,
a UCLA-led team of psychologists reports in the Oct. 10 issue
of Science. "While everyone accepts that physical pain is
real, people are tempted to think that social pain is just in
their heads," said Matthew D. Lieberman, one of the paper's
three authors and an assistant professor of psychology at UCLA.
"But physical and social pain may be more similar than we
"In the English language we use physical metaphors to describe
social pain like 'a broken heart' and 'hurt feelings,'" said
Naomi I. Eisenberger, a UCLA Ph.D. candidate in social psychology
and the study's lead author. "Now we see that there is good
reason for this."
Eisenberger and Lieberman used functional magnetic resonance imaging
(fMRI) to monitor brain activity in 13 UCLA undergraduates while
the students played a computer ball-tossing game designed to provoke
feelings of social exclusion.In Cyberball, two computer figures
are able to throw a virtual ball to each other and to the game's
human player. Although the activities of the figures are entirely
computer-generated, the undergraduates were led to believe that
they corresponded to other student players elsewhere.
"It's really the most boring game you can imagine, except
at one point one of the two computer people stop throwing the
ball to the real player," Lieberman said.
In the first of three rounds, experimenters instructed UCLA undergraduates
just to watch the two other players because "technical difficulties"
prevented them from participating. In the second round, the students
were included in the ball-tossing game, but they were excluded
from the last three-quarters of the third round by the other players.
While the undergraduates later reported feeling excluded in the
third round, fMRI scans revealed elevated activity during both
the first and third rounds in the anterior cingulate. Located
in the center of the brain, the cingulate has been implicated
in generating the adverse experience of physical pain.
"Rationally we can say being excluded doesn't matter, but
rejection of any form still appears to register automatically
in the brain, and the mechanism appears to be similar to the experience
of physical pain," Lieberman said.
When the undergraduates were conscious of being snubbed, cingulate
activity directly responded to the amount of distress that they
later reported feeling at being excluded.
The researchers also detected elevated levels of activity in another
portion of the brain -- the right ventral prefrontal cortex --
but only during the game's third round. Located behind the forehead
and eyes, the prefrontal cortex is associated with thinking about
emotions and with self-control.
"The folks who had the most activity in the prefrontal cortex
had the least amount of activity in the cingulate, making us think
that one area is inhibiting one or the other," Lieberman
The psychologists theorize that the pain of being rejected may
have evolved because of the importance of social bonds for the
survival of most mammals.
"Going back 50,000 years, social distance from a group could
lead to death and it still does for most infant mammals,"
Lieberman said. "We may have evolved a sensitivity to anything
that would indicate that we're being excluded. This automatic
alarm may be a signal for us to reestablish social bonds before
harm befalls us."
"These findings show how deeply rooted our need is for social
connection," Eisenberger said. "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."
The explanation is consistent with past research on mammals. Hamster
mothers with damaged cingulates no longer take steps to keep their
pups near and infant squirrel monkeys similarly affected no longer
produce a spontaneous cry when separated from their mothers. In
human mothers, fMRIs have shown that infant cries increase activity
in the cingulate.
The prefrontal cortex, meanwhile, has been found to be key to
thinking in words and controlling behavior, urges, emotions and
thought. So researchers theorize that the prefrontal cortex may
inhibit the cingulate as opposed to the other way around.
"Verbalizing distress may partially shut down areas of the
brain that register distress," Lieberman said. "The
regulating abilities of the prefrontal cortex may be why therapy
and expressing painful feelings in poems and diaries is therapeutic."
But humans may need a conscious awareness of social exclusion
to activate this buffering mechanism, the researchers said. The
requirement would explain why the prefrontal cortex did not become
activated during the first round of Cyberball, when the students
were led to believe that a computer glitch prevented them from
being included in the ball toss.
"If we have no reason to consciously believe that we're being
excluded," Lieberman said, "we tend not to respond and
The study's third author is Kipling D. Williams, a psychology
professor at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia. Williams
is the architect of Cyberball.
The project received funding from National Institute of Mental
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