Brain pain the same for ego blow, physical punch
WASHINGTON (AP) -- To a part of the brain
that registers pain, the distressful reaction from social rejection if just as great as from a poke in the eye,
according to researchers who measured the neural reactions of people who thought they had become outcasts in a game.
In an experiment at UCLA, researchers
monitored the blood flow in the brains of people who had been
led to believe that other players in a computer ball game were
intentionally excluding them and refusing to let them play with
The shock and distress of this rejection
registered in the same part of the brain, called the anterior
cingulate cortex, that also responds to physical pain, said Naomi
I. Eisenberger, a UCLA researcher and first author of the study
appearing this week in the journal Science.
"The ACC is the same part of the
brain that has been found to be associated with the unpleasantness
of physical pain, the part of pain that really bothers us," Eisenberger
"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," the researcher said.
Eisenberger said the study suggests
that social exclusion of any sort -- divorce, not being invited
to a party, being turned down for a date -- would cause distress
in the ACC.
"You can imagine that this part of
the brain is active any time we are separated from our close companions,"
she said. "It would definitely be active when we experience a
loss," such as a death or the end of a love affair.
The tendency to feel rejection as
an acute pain may have developed in humans as a defensive mechanism
for the species, she said.
"Because we have such a long time
as infants and need to be taken care of, it is really important
that we stay close to the social group. If we don't we're not
going to survive," said Eisenberger.
"The hypothesis is that the social
attachment system that makes sure we don't stray too far from
the group piggybacked onto the pain system to help our species
This suggests that the need to be
accepted as part of a social group is as important to humans as
avoiding other types of pain, she said.
Just as an infant may learn to avoid
fire by first being burned, humans may learn to stick together
because rejection causes distress in the pain center of the brain,
"If it hurts to be separated from
other people, then it will prevent us from straying too far from
the social group," she said.