How scientists proved that the
pain of rejection is all too real
Ian Sample, science
Friday, October 10, 2003
The pain of rejection
is more than mere metaphor. A team of scientists have found that
to the brain, a social snub is just like stubbing a toe.
Brain scans carried out on volunteers
showed that when they suffered a social snub, the brain's "pain
centre" went into overdrive. The finding suggests that any emotional
stress, such as the demise of a relationship or the loss of a
loved one, might be far more closely linked to real pain than
Scientists have known for some time
that when a person is physically hurt, a part of the brain called
the anterior cingulate flickers into action.
"It's like an alarm system. It lets
you know when you're feeling pain," said Matthew Lieberman, a
psychologist at the University of California in Los Angeles.
Dr Lieberman and his colleagues Naomi
Eisenberger and Kipling Williams decided to see if the same part
of the brain was triggered by emotional stress.
They got volunteers to lie down in
a brain scanner while they played a simple computer game. The
game involved hitting buttons on a handset to catch a virtual
ball and then throw it to one of two other players on a screen.
Volunteers were told that the game
was unimportant and that it was only being used to check that
connections to the other players lying in scanners elsewhere worked.
But the researchers were not telling the truth. The other two
players were not real at all, but were being controlled by a computer
When the game started, all three
players passed the ball around so that each got a fair share of
the action. But after playing for a while, the computer-controlled
players suddenly started throwing the ball only between themselves.
"We had people coming out of the
scanners saying 'Did you see what they did to me!'," said Dr Lieberman.
The volunteers who felt most put
out by the snub showed the biggest changes in brain activity.
Their brain's "pain centre" had become far more active.
"The response to this social exclusion
was remarkably similar to what you see in response to physical
pain," said Dr Lieberman.
According to Dr Lieberman, his results
should change how we think about emotional pain. "We tend to think
physical harm is in a different category to emotional harm, but
this shows we should be aware that emotional pain can cause the
same kind of distress to someone as physical pain."
Professor Anthony Dickenson, of University
College London, who specialises in the origins of pain, said:
"This whole area is incredibly important because it's proving
to the medical profession once and for all that emotional distress
is a genuine thing, that people who are distressed and upset are
"It shows that the psychological
aspects of pain are genuine and real and dealing with it is not
a case of telling people to pull themselves together."
Dr Richard Wise, of Oxford University,
who has used magnetic resonance imaging to study the effect of
pain on the brain, said: "Studies like this have a broader value
in that they can help us build up an idea of the networks in the
brain that are involved in experiencing different feelings."