Being left out? Science understands your pain

By Lucy Beaumont
October 11, 2003

Scientists have proved what schoolchildren and society's B list have always known - being left out hurts.

Using brain imaging technology, researchers from the University of California and Sydney's Macquarie University found that the hurt of rejection activated the same structures in the brain as physical pain.

"It is a basic feature of human experience to feel soothed in the presence of close others and to feel distressed when left behind," said the study, published in Science journal today.

They noted that language reflected this in assigning physical pain words to emotional distress, for example "hurt feelings".

Subjects in the study played a computer game where they were one of three characters tossing a ball to each other.

The 14 subjects, who were told that the other two players were controlled by fellow subjects rather than software, were excluded from the game at some stages. Their brain activity was measured using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).

Researchers found that the anterior cingulate cortex, known to act as a neural pain alarm, became active when subjects were socially excluded and reported feeling ignored or excluded. The same part of the brain has been found to engage when mothers hear their babies cry.

They reasoned that humans' "social attachment system, which keeps young near their caregivers, may have piggybacked onto the physical pain system to promote survival".

Tim Hannan, a neuropsychologist and senior lecturer at the University of Western Sydney, said the results might relate to primal pain avoidance mechanisms.

"You touch a rose thorn and the message very quickly runs to your brain to say, "Stop what you're doing'," he said.

"This study may indicate that as social animals we have the ability to recognise unpleasant social events and want to withdraw from them."

Researchers also discovered that the brain's distress regulator was active during deliberate social exclusion, but not when subjects thought they had been accidentally left out of the ball-toss game.