Why it hurts when you're left out

By Paul H.B. Shin
Daily News Staff Writer
Friday, October 10th, 2003

Rejection hurts. No, really, it does.

A social snub activates the same part of the brain that is switched on when a person feels physical pain, according to a new study using MRI scans that offers the first medical explanation of why rejection feels so unpleasant.

Using a rigged computer game to socially isolate people taking part in the experiment, researchers found that an area of the brain known to deal with physical discomfort grew more active the more they felt left out.

The research, led by UCLA psychologist Naomi Eisenberger, is the first to link social distress in humans to a part of the brain called the anterior cingulate cortex.

The findings, reported in the journal Science, back previous studies that show damage to that area disrupts primal behavior that motivates mothers to keep newborns close and prompts babies to cry out when separated from their mothers.

People taking part in the experiment were put through a brain scan as they played a virtual ballgame with two other players. In reality, they were playing with a computer that was rigged to make them feel left out.

"You really do experience pain when you're rejected," Eisenberger said.

Because social ties were so important to survival in the wild, Eisenberger theorizes that the system that produces social distress may have "piggybacked" onto the neural pathways that regulate physical pain.

When Eisenberger explains her team's research to non-scientists, they're quick to nod in agreement, since almost everyone has experience a snub, she said.

"They say, 'Oh, that makes sense. No wonder being rejected hurts,'" Eisenberger said. "People seem to accept it because it feels very intuitive."