A new study
reveals how social rejection affects the brain's reactions
By Sam Graceffo, M.D.
registers in the brain just like physical pain. This finding,
published in the journal Science and then widely reported
in lay publications, is the work of social psychologist Dr. Naomi
Eisenberger of UCLA.
Researchers used functional
magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) brain scans to determine how
rejection affected 13 subjects. While inside a scanner, volunteers
were asked to play a computer game in which they tossed a virtual
reality ball around with two other players. After a few minutes
of normal play, the volunteer was excluded from the action. The
other two continued to play, but did not throw the ball to the
volunteer for the next 45 minutes.
As expected, volunteers
reported feeling surprised, upset and hurt. But the significant
finding was that the MRI showed activity in a part of the brain
connected to pain perception, the anterior cingulated cortex (ACC).
This is the same brain reaction that would occur with a physical
injury such as a punch to the stomach, a poke in the eye or a
burn on the hand.
The UCLA team explained
that it made sense for humans to be wired this way, since social
interaction is vital to our survival. "There's something about
exclusion from others that is perceived as being as harmful to
our survival as something that can physically hurt us, and our
body automatically knows this," Eisenberger said.
This study indicates that
the ACC pain center will be activated under a number of circumstances:
separation from our group or a close companion; the end of a love
affair; a death in the family; or being the last player picked
for a team. Having this painful reaction to rejection helps keep
us close to the social group. This reaction also has important
survival benefits: As infants, we need to be nurtured for a long
period of time, and straying from our parents or support group
could mean death. The painful jolt in our brain teaches us to
avoid activities that might lead to exclusion, just as the pain
of a burned finger teaches us to avoid a hot stove.
"This study shows how deeply
rooted our need for connectedness is," says Eisenberger. Indeed,
it also shows the truthfulness of expressions such as "hurt feelings"
and "gut-wrenching." Although it leaves no visible bruises, rejection
causes hurt that is just as genuine as physical discomfort. To
our brain, a broken heart is just as real and painful as a broken
Dr. Graceffo is a retired
psychiatrist and nationally ranked distance runner. His column
appears weekly in The New Times.