Names, Rejection Actually Can Hurt

Written by Nia Williams

According to a report published in the journal Science, being ostracized, or rejected, can cause people pain the same way a stubbed toe or poke in the eye can.

The team of researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles, conducted tests to see if emotional pain worked like physical pain. In order to find out, they monitored the brain activity of volunteers who played a computer game. The volunteers believed they were playing against two other people on other computers. Half way through the game, the two other people stopped letting the volunteers play with them, giving the volunteers the impression they had been rejected.

When the volunteers believed they were rejected, a certain part of the brain, called the anterior cingulate cortex, or ACC, showed a sudden increase in activity. The ACC is also the part of the brain that is activated when you physically injure yourself. The researchers therefore realized that emotional pain affects the brain the way physical brain does.

The researchers, lead by a scientist named Naomi I Eisenberger, report that other kinds of emotional pain, like being dumped by your friends, being picked last for a team, or losing a loved one, would cause the same reaction in your brain.

The scientists have theories about why social exclusion and physical pain might trigger the same part of the brain. They think that, since it would have been very dangerous for ancient humans to be separated from the group, the brain evolved to make social separation as alarming to an individual as getting hurt, making people want to try to stick together.