Images Show a Snub Really
is Like Kick in the Gut
Thursday, October 9, 2003
By Maggie Fox, Health and Science Correspondent
WASHINGTON (Reuters) -
The feeling is familiar to anyone who has been passed over in
picking teams or snubbed at a party -- a sickening, almost painful
feeling in the stomach.
Well, it turns out that "kicked in
the gut" feeling is real, U.S. scientists said on Thursday.
Brain imaging studies show that
a social snub affects the brain precisely the way visceral pain
"When someone hurts your feelings,
it really hurts you," said Matt Lieberman, a social psychologist
at the University of California, Los Angeles, who worked on the
"I wouldn't want to be quoted as
saying that physical pain and social pain are the same thing,
but it seems that some of the same things are going on," he said
in a telephone interview.
"In the English language we use
physical metaphors to describe social pain like 'a broken heart'
and 'hurt feelings,"' added Naomi Eisenberger, a graduate student
who did much of the work. "Now we see that there is good reason
Working with Kipling Williams, a
psychology professor at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia,
Lieberman and Eisenberger set up a brain imaging test of 13 volunteers
to find out how social distress affects the brain.
They used functional magnetic imaging
-- a type of scan that allows the brain's activity to be viewed
"live." The 13 volunteers were given a task that they did not
know related to an experiment in social snubbing.
Writing in the journal Science,
Lieberman and Eisenberger said the brains of the volunteers lit
up when they were rejected in virtually the same way as a person
experiencing physical pain.
"It would be odd if social pain
looked like the exact same thing as someone-breaking-your-arm
pain," Lieberman said. "What it does look like is visceral pain."
In other words -- like being punched
in the stomach.
The area affected is the anterior
cingulate cortex, a part of the brain known to be involved in
the emotional response to pain.
In the experiment, the volunteers
were asked to play a computer game. They believed they were playing
two other people, but in fact played a set computer program.
"It looked like a ball being thrown
around between the three people," Lieberman said.
Eventually, the game excludes the
player. "For the next 45 throws they don't get thrown the ball,"
"It is just heartbreaking to watch.
They keep indicating that they are ready to be thrown to. This
really affects the person afterwards. They report feeling social
The functional magnetic imaging
verifies the physical basis of this feeling.
Social interaction is important
to survival, so it would make sense that people would evolve to
have a strong emotional response to being included socially, Lieberman
"For any mammal, all the needs that
people typically think of as necessary for survival -- food, shelter,
avoiding physical harm -- your caregiver gives you access to those
needs," Lieberman said.
But there also seems to be a defense
mechanism to prevent the pain of rejection from becoming overwhelming.
"We also saw this area in the prefrontal
cortex. The more it is active in response to pain, the less subjective
pain you feel," Lieberman said. "This part of the brain inhibits
the more basic response."
In the volunteers, those who had
the most activity here reported the least distress in response
to the snub.
to be involved in consciously thinking about the pain, Lieberman
said, but said the area needed more study.