Snub really is a kick in the guts, brain reveals

November 11, 2003

The feeling is familiar to anyone who has been passed over for a team place or snubbed at a party - an almost painful feeling in the stomach.

Well that "kicked in the guts" feeling is real, United States scientists say.

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," says 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 the English language we use physical metaphors to describe social pain like 'a broken heart' and 'hurt feelings'," said 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, 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 programme.

"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," he 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 brain scan verifies the physical basis of this feeling.

Lieberman said since social interaction was important to survival, it made sense that people would develop a strong emotional response to social exclusion.