Rejection Hurts so Bad
Friday, October 10, 2003
you feel like you've been punched in the stomach after your lover
walks out on you, that may be because that is what it feels like.
Researchers at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA),
publishing in the Oct. 10 issue of Science, have found that emotional
pain and physical pain can stimulate the same parts of the brain.
used to test participants
Thirteen participants were hooked up to functional magnetic resonance
imaging (fMRI) equipment while they played a ball tossing video
game called Cyberball. The fMRI monitors blood flow to different
parts of the brain.
The experiment involved three different scenarios. In the first,
participants were told they could only watch, not play, due to
technical difficulties (nobody's fault exclusion). In the second
scenario, the participants played ball with two other players
(actually the computer). In the third and final scenario, the
two players who started threw the ball only to each other, intentionally
excluding the third participant.
There were blood flow changes in two areas of the brain. Flow
was increased to the anterior cingulated cortex, which has previously
been associated with the experience of physical pain. The right
ventral prefrontal cortex, however was activated when the distress
was least, indicating that it might actually work to counteract
the feeling of being shunned.
Evolution comes into play There is an evolutionary reason for
this finely tuned system: mammals need their mothers. And when
their mothers (or the rest of the social group) are not there,
the brain sends out an urgent message.
There are various things in the world that humans need in order
to survive, and the ones we typically think of are to avoid physical
harm, says senior study author Matthew Lieberman, an assistant
professor of psychology at UCLA. For human beings and mammals
more generally, being socially connected is just as important.
You are more likely to die as a result of social exclusion than
of physical pain. Naomi Eisenberger, a graduate student at UCLA,
was the lead author of the paper.
We think this part of the brain functions as an alarm system telling
the conscious, logical, willful part of the brain that it's time
to turn its attention to some problem, Lieberman adds.
Paying more attention to emotions
21st century mammals, what this means is that social support systems
are good for us. Emotional pain is an undesired psychological
state of affairs, and the less there is of that in social networks,
the more harmoniously people will interact, Jaak Panksepp, author
of an accompanying perspective article, told a group of reporters.
Coming to terms with the true nature of emotional feelings in
the brain is essential for constructing the kinds of social institutions
and habits that can optimise human and animal welfare.
It may also convince rationalists to pay more attention to the
emotional side of life. We tend to think of social pain as not
as real as physical pain, Lieberman says. At a minimum, this suggests
that social pain isn't as imaginary, that it's actually rooted
in this deep evolutionary process, and that it's a critical part
of survival for children. It may not be critical for survival
for adults in some objective sense, but because we've now evolved,
we feel terrible when this alarm goes off.
A look at social support systems
next step would be to look at how social support systems can mitigate
these painful effects. It would be important to see how social
comfort actually changes pain-induced distress, and which types
of pain it can modulate, Panksepp told HealthDay in a separate
The study has an eerie, real-life counterpart in the story of
the New York City man, Antoine Yates, who was housing a 200 kg
tiger in his apartment. The tiger was taken to a wildlife refuge
in Ohio after mauling his owner's leg. Noting the separation from
his beloved if fearsome pet, Yates told the New York Daily News,
The pain in my leg is nothing compared to the pain to my heart.
Or maybe the two are more alike than he realises.
Hopefully, Yates has loved ones who can ease his hurt. The tiger,
meanwhile, is too ferocious to be placed with other tigers. Caretakers
are hoping he'll calm down enough so that he, too, can have a
support system. - (HealthDayNews)