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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 does.

"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 study.

"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 for this."

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," Lieberman said.

"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 distress."

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 said.

"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.

It seemed to be involved in consciously thinking about the pain, Lieberman said, but said the area needed more study.