'Broken hearts' as painful as broken bones

Sunday, October 12, 2003

WASHINGTON: A University of California-Los Angeles-led team of psychologists, has found that two key areas of the brain respond to the pain of rejection, in the same way as physical pain.

"While everyone accepts that physical pain is real, people are tempted to think that social pain is just in their heads. But physical and social pain may be more similar than we realised," says Matthew D Lieberman, one of the paper's three authors and an assistant professor of psychology at the UCLA.

"In the English language, we use physical metaphors to describe social pain like 'a broken heart' and 'hurt feelings'. Now, we see that there is good reason for this," says Naomi I Eisenberger, a UCLA Ph D candidate in social psychology and the study's lead author.

Eisenberger and Lieberman used functional magnetic resonance imaging (FMRI) to monitor the brain activity in 13 UCLA undergraduates, while they played a computer ball tossing game designed to provoke feelings of social exclusion.

In the first of the three rounds, the experimenters instructed the participants just to watch the two other players because "technical difficulties" prevented them from participating.

In the second round, the students were included in the ball tossing game, but were excluded from the last three-quarters of the third round by the other players.

While the undergraduates later reported feeling excluded in the third round, FMRI scans revealed elevated activity during the first and third rounds in the anterior cingulate.

Located in the center of the brain, the cingulate has been implicated in generating the adverse experience of physical pain.

"Rationally we can say being excluded doesn't matter, but rejection of any form still appears to register automatically in the brain, and the mechanism appears to be similar to the experience of physical pain," Lieberman said.

When the undergraduates were conscious of being snubbed, cingulate activity directly responded to the amount of distress that they later reported feeling at being excluded. The psychologists theorise that the pain of being rejected might have evolved because of the importance of social bonds for the survival of most mammals.