Bruised Egos Said to Cause
Shock and Distress of Social Rejection Affects
Brain in Same Way as Physical Injury, Study Says
The Associated Press
October 9, 2003
To a part of the
brain that registers pain, the distressful reaction from social
rejection is just as great as from a poke in the eye, according
toresearchers who measured the neural reactions of people who
thought they had become outcasts in a game.
In an experiment at UCLA, researchers
monitored the blood flow in the brains of people who had been
led to believe that other players in a computer ball game were
intentionally excluding them and refusing to let them play with
The shock and distress of this rejection
registered in the same part of the brain, called the anterior
cingulate cortex, that also responds to physical pain, said Naomi
I. Eisenberger, a UCLA researcher and first author of the study
appearing this week in the journal Science.
"The ACC is the same part of
the brain that has been found to be associated with the unpleasantness
of physical pain, the part of pain that really bothers us,"
"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 researcher said.
Eisenberger said the study suggests
that social exclusion of any sort divorce, not being invited to
a party, being turned down for a date would cause distress in
"You can imagine that this
part of the brain is active any time we are separated from our
close companions," she said. "It would definitely be
active when we experience a loss," such as a death or the
end of a love affair.
The tendency to feel rejection as
an acute pain may have developed in humans as a defensive mechanism
for the species, she said.
"Because we have such a long time as infants and need to
be taken care of, it is really important that we stay close to
the social group. If we don't we're not going to survive,"
"The hypothesis is that the
social attachment system that makes sure we don't stray too far
from the group piggybacked onto the pain system to help our species
This suggests that the need to be
accepted as part of a social group is as important to humans as
avoiding other types of pain, she said.
Just as an infant may learn to avoid fire by first being burned,
humans may learn to stick together because rejection causes distress
in the pain center of the brain, said Eisenberger.
"If it hurts to be separated
from other people, then it will prevent us from straying too far
from the social group," she said.
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