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Outside Influences
A new study reveals how social rejection affects the brain's reactions

By Sam Graceffo, M.D.

Social rejection 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 leg.

Dr. Graceffo is a retired psychiatrist and nationally ranked distance runner. His column appears weekly in The New Times.