Study suggests humans who are rejected feel physical pain
Research highlights the need to belong
By Carey Goldberg
research confirms what the lonely already know from the aching
inside: The hurt of social rejection seems to activate parts of
the brain in much the same way as physical pain.
The report published today in the
journal Science is the first such finding to link pain and social
exclusion in humans, researchers said, although animal brain studies
have shown a similar link between pain and the distress of mother-child
"Social pain isn't just in the mind,"
said Matthew Lieberman, coauthor of the report and an assistant
professor at the University of California at Los Angeles. The
study findings show "our need for social connectedness exists
at a much more basic level in humans than we typically realize."
The study fits into a growing body
of work about the critical importance of human connections, a
hot topic among research psychologists in recent years, said Susan
Fiske, a psychology professor at Princeton University. It increasingly
appears, she said, that the need to belong is so deep that it
is fundamental to survival: "Middle school girls know this better
than anybody. . . . Sit at a lunch table with somebody, then get
up and move, and they're destroyed."
The researchers, two from UCLA and
one from Macquarie University in Australia, asked their subjects
to lie in a magnetic resonance imaging machine. Their brains were
scanned as they participated in a computer simulation of a three-way
game of catch. The subjects, 13 undergraduates, were deceived
into thinking that they were playing with people under other scanning
At first, the subject would receive
a few passes. Then it would appear that the other players had
stopped throwing to the subject, and passed the ball only between
themselves for 45 more throws.
When the subjects were left out
of the game, an area of the brain associated with physical pain,
the anterior cingulate cortex, experienced more activity. The
more distress the subject felt, the more active that area of the
brain became, reaching moderate-to-large levels of activation
similar to the activation reported in a study in which subjects'
skin was exposed to about 117-degree heat, Lieberman said.
It might seem that being left out
of a trivial game of catch would hardly be enough to elicit a
significant feeling of exclusion. But in fact, the study found
that subjects felt left out not only when they stopped getting
passes, but also even in an introductory period when they were
told there were technical problems and they should just watch
the other two players for a while. One caution Fiske offered about
the study is that the anterior cingulate cortex also is linked
with functions other than the experience of physical pain, including
the processing of conflicts and inconsistencies. So its activation
cannot be seen as incontrovertible proof that an experience is
processed like physical pain.Lieberman said he and other coauthors
planned next to explore whether a feeling of human connection
-- for example, the presence of a loved one near the scanner --
lessens the distress of exclusion from the game.A better understanding
of the pain of social exclusion could lead to the development
of psychiatric medication for loneliness, said Jaak Panksepp,
a neuroscientist at Bowling Green State University in Ohio who
pioneered animal studies on the distress of mother-baby separation.
He and others cautioned that the study in Science would need much
more confirmation and development. Carey
Goldberg can be reached at email@example.com.
2003 Globe Newspaper Company.