Words may not break bones
but they still hurt
Thursday, October 9, 2003
Researchers say brain as active from social rejection as from
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 to researchers 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
Eisenberger, a UCLA researcher and first author of the study appearing
this week in the journal Science.
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,” Ms. Eisenberger said.
“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.
Ms. 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 the ACC.
“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.
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,” she said.
“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 centre of the brain,
Ms. Eisenberger said.
it hurts to be separated from other people, then it will prevent
us from straying too far from the social group,” she said.