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Rejection Hurts So Bad

A shun is as good as a kick in the shins, brain study finds

THURSDAY, Oct. 9, 2003 (HealthDayNews) -- If you feel like you've been punched in the stomach after your lover walks out on you, that may be because that is what it feels like.

Researchers at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), publishing in the Oct. 10 issue of Science, have found that emotional pain and physical pain can stimulate the same parts of the brain.

Thirteen participants were hooked up to functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) equipment while they played a ball tossing video game called Cyberball. The fMRI monitors blood flow to different parts of the brain.

The experiment involved three different scenarios. In the first, participants were told they could only watch, not play, due to technical difficulties ("nobody's fault" exclusion). In the second scenario, the participants played ball with two other "players" (actually the computer). In the third and final scenario, the two "players" who started threw the ball only to each other, intentionally excluding the third participant.

There were blood flow changes in two areas of the brain. Flow was increased to the anterior cingulated cortex, which has previously been associated with the experience of physical pain. The right ventral prefrontal cortex, however was activated when the distress was least, indicating that it might actually work to counteract the feeling of being shunned.

There is an evolutionary reason for this finely tuned system: Mammals need their mothers. And when their mothers (or the rest of the social group) are not there, the brain sends out an urgent message.

"There are various things in the world that humans need in order to survive, and the ones we typically think of are to avoid physical harm," says senior study author Matthew Lieberman, an assistant professor of psychology at UCLA. "For human beings and mammals more generally, being socially connected is just as important. You are more likely to die as a result of social exclusion than of physical pain." Naomi Eisenberger, a graduate student at UCLA, was the lead author of the paper.

"We think this part of the brain functions as an alarm system telling the conscious, logical, willful part of the brain that it's time to turn its attention to some problem," Lieberman adds.

For 21st century mammals, what this means is that social support systems are good for us. "Emotional pain is an undesired psychological state of affairs, and the less there is of that in social networks, the more harmoniously people will interact," Jaak Panksepp, author of an accompanying perspective article, told a group of reporters. "Coming to terms with the true nature of emotional feelings in the brain is essential for constructing the kinds of social institutions and habits that can optimize human and animal welfare."

It may also convince rationalists to pay more attention to the emotional side of life. "We tend to think of social pain as not as real as physical pain," Lieberman says. "At a minimum, this suggests that social pain isn't as imaginary, that it's actually rooted in this deep evolutionary process, and that it's a critical part of survival for children. It may not be critical for survival for adults in some objective sense, but because we've now evolved, we feel terrible when this alarm goes off."

The next step would be to look at how social support systems can mitigate these painful effects. "It would be important to see how social comfort actually changes pain-induced distress, and which types of pain it can modulate," Panksepp told HealthDay in a separate interview.

The study has an eerie, real-life counterpart in the story of the New York City man, Antoine Yates, who was housing a 425-pound tiger in his apartment. The tiger was taken to a wildlife refuge in Ohio after mauling his owner's leg. Noting the separation from his beloved if fearsome pet, Yates told the New York Daily News, "The pain in my leg is nothing compared to the pain to my heart."

Or maybe the two are more alike than he realizes.

Hopefully, Yates has loved ones who can ease his hurt. The tiger, meanwhile, is too ferocious to be placed with other tigers. Caretakers are hoping he'll calm down enough so that he, too, can have a support system.

More information

For more information on one form of social exclusion, bullying, visit the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry or bullying.org.

And to learn about what hurts, try the American Pain Foundation.
SOURCES: Matthew Lieberman, Ph.D., assistant professor, psychology, University of California, Los Angeles; Jaak Panksepp, Ph.D., professor emeritus, Bowling Green State University, Bowling Green, Ohio, and head, affective neuroscience research, Falk Center for Molecular Therapeutics, Northwestern University, Evanston, Ill.; Oct. 10, 2003 , Science
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