Why hurt feelings really do hurt

Friday, October 10, 2003
By Michael Woods, Post-Gazette National Bureau

The old Scottish nursery rhyme was wrong.

Sticks and stones can break your bones, and names can hurt you, too.

Researchers yesterday revealed the biology behind what every victim of a put-down, cheap shot or social snub knows all too well: social rejection hurts. They showed that hurt feelings affect exactly the same region of the brain as a broken bone or other physical injury.

"This study should make people more aware of the impact of negative words and gestures toward others," said chief researcher Dr. Naomi Eisenberger, a psychologist at the University of California at Los Angeles. The study will appear in today's edition of the journal Science, which is published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Using magnetic resonance imaging, Eisenberger and associates in Australia studied brain activity in 13 volunteers as they played a video game designed to mimic social rejection. The game involved throwing a ball back and forth. Volunteers thought they were playing with two other people, but a computer controlled the two animated figures the volunteers saw on the screen.

After a period of nice three-way play, the computer forced the volunteers to sit on the sidelines. The other two "players" began to throw the ball between themselves.

The social snub triggered nerve activity in a part of the brain called the anterior cingulate cortex, which also processes physical pain.

"This suggests that the hurt from getting punched or ignored at lunch comes, in part, from the same part of the brain," said an AAAS editorial that accompanied the study.

Dr. Jaak Pankseep, an international authority on the biology of emotions who teaches at Bowling Green State and Northwestern universities, called it a "bold" study that validates the common use of terms such as "hurt feelings" and the "pain" of losing a loved one.

"Emotional pain is an undesired psychological state of affairs," said Pankseep, who was not involved in the research. "And the less there is of that in social networks, the more harmoniously people will interact."

Discovery of an overlap between the body's system for registering physical pain and social pain may have other implications, Eisenberger noted in an interview.

"Being around close friends or partners should make physical pain less distressing," she said. "Taking antidepressants, usually used to treat anxiety or depression from social stressors, should also alleviate physical pain. Likewise, being in physical pain from a chronic condition should probably make us more sensitive to the possibility of social rejection."

The physical distress from social rejection also may help explain violent outbursts among "loners" and other socially isolated individuals, Eisenberger said. Pain is a proven cause of violence in animals, she added, noting that rats put in a cage and given an electric shock attack each other.

"Certainly there is bound to be a connection," Pankseep said, although it would be difficult to prove in humans. Nevertheless, the study should help people realize that emotional feelings have deep roots in the brain.

"We still need much more 'emotional education' in our society," Pankseep said, "and that can't happen until we accept the deep structure of our emotional nature."