Pain of Rejection
Thursday, 9 September 2004
ABC TV Thursday 8:00pm
history poets have written about the pain of a broken heart. Could it be these
poetic insights are more accurate than anyone thought? Now scientists in US and
Australia have found an answer to the age old question, why does a broken heart
hurt so bad. They came up with an ingenious way to make people feel rejected,
all based on a game of frisbee, and then they looked at where they feel the pain
of rejection in their brains. To their amazement it's in the same place we feel
physical pain. So science seems to have proven the poets right... the pain of
a broken heart can hurt just like the cut of knife. (full
Ass. Prof. Matthew Lieberman
Department of Psychology
Department of Psychology
Professor Kip Williams
Full Program Transcript:
Love opened a mortal wound.
In agony, I worked the blade
to make it deeper. Please,
I begged, let death come quick.
We've all experienced the pain of a broken heart, the wounds of rejection.
But have you ever stopped and wondered why is emotional rejection so physically painful?
Blow after blow, my heart
couldn't survive this beating.
Physical pain and emotional rejection; it's an association we all make and a common fuel for poets and artists.
Why do I suffer? What lover
ever had so much pleasure?
Now a collaboration between psychologists here and in the USA is using the latest technology to figure out if emotional pain is real and answer the age old question: why does a broken heart hurt so much?
People have thoughts about the fact that they get rejected and it feels bad, and we use language like you know, what she did really hurt me, or he broke my heart. And .../... psychologists are interested as to what extent these things have some real basis in the mind and the brain."
Matt Lieberman and his PhD student Naomi Eisenberger from the University of California at Los Angeles have been trying to find out why the agony of emotional distress feels like a real, physical pain.
But they had a problem.
How do you make someone feel the distress of social rejection while they're having their brain scanned?
Matt and Naomi were stumped until they took a trip to Australia for a psychology conference.
I gave my talk and then at some point Kip gave his talk. And Naomi and I sort of looked at each other, you know, shortly after the conference ended. And we went whow, we've been trying to study social rejection, but you can't do that while you've got someone laying inside the bore of a scanner, and Kip's paradigm would be the exact right thing.
Kip Williams from Macquarie University had the answer to their problem.
He specialises in the psychology of ostracism and rejection.
He'd also been looking for a way to make people feel socially rejected.
And one day the answer struck him in the back of his head while out walking in the park.
I was at a park with my dog and suddenly a frisbee rolled up and hit me in the back and I took it and looked around and there was two guys playing so I threw it back to them thinking that I'd go back to my dog but then they threw it back to me. So then I threw it to them and they threw it to me so I sort of joined their group and we were throwing it around for a couple of minutes and then all of a sudden they stopped throwing it to me and they just threw it to each other back and forth and back and forth and I was amazed at how bad I felt so quickly and I also felt really quite awkward and finally I just sort of slithered back to my dog and if it weren't for the fact that I was a social psychologist and it made me think hey I could use this in the lab I think I would have felt worse still.
Kip took this experience and turned it into a simple computer game called Cyberball.
And today, Alisa is about to play.
She thinks she's playing Cyberball against two other people on computers in another room.
In fact it's just Alisa and the computer and, after a few turns that include her, the computer will just play ball with itself and exclude Alisa from the game.
She'll get included maybe three times and after she gets the ball three times then they'll just start to throw it to each other.
Paul Willis, reporter:
Doesn't seem as keen as she was a moment ago.
No I think she's sort of getting the idea that she's not going to get the ball again.
Paul Willis, reporter:
She's given up.
she clearly looks disengaged at this point
Now to assess how Alisa feels after having been rejected.
So how accepted did you feel?
Not very. It was OK at first but then it was like I wasn't there.
Did you feel invisible
Would you want to meet these people?
No and I wouldn't want to play with them again!
Even though it looks like a simple computer game, it's given Alisa all the classic signs of rejection.
So what's happening inside Alisa's brain?
That's what Matt and Naomi were curious to find out.
Back in LA, they began scanning students brains while they were playing Cyberball to make them feel rejected.
They were looking for areas in the brain that were activated when people were ostracised.
And they ended up with a map of the rejected brain.
So what we're looking at. This activation this red block here is in the anterior cingulate cortex. And this is basically the same part of the brain that's involved in physical pain. So when we feel distressed or when we feel bothered by some kind of physical pain, that's the same activation that you'll see.
Paul Willis, reporter:
And so this is the same part of the brain that lights up if you're experiencing physical pain or if your experiencing emotional distress
Matt and Naomi had stumbled onto something both unexpected and quite remarkable.
The reason we feel physical pain when we are emotionally distressed is because we're using the same part of the brain to deal with both experiences.
So the poets were right; there is real pain in a broken heart.
But why would our brains be wired like that?
Matt thinks that it's all to do with being social creatures; our survival depends on fitting into a social group.
If we've been excluded from that group, we have a powerful new alarm system that tells us something is wrong.
And so the pain system that had already evolved in animals long before social relationships were important to creatures, that pain system was already there as a perfect system waiting to be tapped into by this social pain system."
So it does hurt to be rejected.
But there was more to the story than an ancient piece of brain wiring.
Back in the lab, Naomi found a totally different part of the brain that was also working overtime during rejection. She'd found a safety valve that protects the brain against feeling too rejected.
So we also found in out study that this area, the right ventral prefrontal cortex which is sort of right in over my eyebrow, we also found activation here. .../... and this area has typically been shown to be associated with regulating people's distress .../... And so people who had more activity in this area actually reported feeling less badly after they were rejected.
Naomi's safety valve helps to moderate the effects of distress.
So perhaps this safety valve that is the key to mending a broken heart.
And I think this is part of the reason why people tend to write poetry or write in diaries more when they're sad than when they're happy, because there's something about turning on this region of the brain that helps turn off the parts that produce the distress itself.
But we're not all poets, so how can the rest of us learn to deal with the pain of rejection?
Well Matt, Naomi and Kip suggests talking with friends helps trigger the safety valve. And their research has shown a drop of alcohol can help ease the pain.
Personally, I've always thought that the best cure for a broken heart is a beer with your mates.
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