Rejection really hurts finds brain study
October 9, 2003
Lonely hearts have
spent millennia trying to capture the pain of rejection in painting,
poetry and song. Now neuroscientists have seen it flickering in
some remarkable brain images from college students suffering a
The brain scans reveal that two of
the same brain regions that are activated by physical pain are
also activated by social exclusion.
"This doesn't mean a broken arm hurts
exactly the same way that a broken heart does," says Matthew Lieberman
of the University of California, Los Angeles, who led the research.
"But it shows that the human brain sounds the same alarm system
for emotional and physical distress."
Eventually, by targeting drugs to
these regions, he says it may be possible to develop powerful
new medications for extreme cases of social anxiety or depression.
"This is evidence that humans don't
build complex emotions out of thin air," says Jaak Panksepp, of
Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, who has studied
how the same regions are involved in social interactions in many
mammals. "These emotions are built on basic tools that evolution
gave us a long time ago. "
Emotional alarm system
Lieberman describes the anterior
cingulate cortex (ACC) as an emotional alarm system that draws
the brain's attention to distressing or unexpected changes in
the environment. The region lights up in response to pain, for
instance, but also when a mother hear an infant's cry. But no
one had tested whether social rejection also activated this area
So the researchers used functional
magnetic resonance imaging to view the brains of nine female and
four male college students who volunteered to play a computer
game. In the game, they caught and threw a ball with two other
players. Each participant was told they were interacting with
other students, but in fact the other players were controlled
by the computer.
In the first part of the experiment,
the participant was told technical problems prevented them from
playing, so they could only watch. In the second half, they were
able to catch and throw the ball to the player of their choosing.
But after they received the ball seven times, the computer stopped
throwing the ball to them for the remaining 40 or so tosses.
Afterwards, each student was asked
about their level of distress at being given the cold shoulder
by the other players.
Thirst and hunger
In both parts of the experiment,
the ACC lit up and was more active in students who reported greater
distress. During the second experiment, another region called
the right ventral prefrontal cortex, which animal studies have
linked to reducing suffering from pain, was also activated.
Lieberman speculates that this region
also helps cope with the "pain" of social exclusion, but may only
be activated when a cause can be identified, which was not the
case in the first experiment.
The fact that disruption of even
a trivial virtual relationship can activate the ACC shows how
hard wired the response is. "The need for social connectiveness
isn't just something self-help authors cooked up," says Lieberman.
"It's a basic need programmed into a primitive part of our brains
like thirst and pain and hunger."
Science (vol 302, p 290)