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