Two key areas of the brain appear to respond to the pain of rejection in the same way as physical pain, a UCLA-led team of psychologists reports.
"While everyone accepts that physical pain is real, people are tempted to think that social pain is just in their heads," said Matthew D. Lieberman, one of the paper's three authors (with Kipling D. Williams and Naomi I. Eisenberger, study's lead author). "But physical and social pain may be more similar than we realized."
"The folks who had the most activity in the prefrontal cortex [associated with thinking about emotions and with self-control] had the least amount of activity in the cingulate [located in the center of the brain, has been implicated in generating the adverse experience of physical pain], making us think that one area is inhibiting one or the other," Lieberman said.
The psychologists theorize that the pain of being rejected may have evolved because of the importance of social bonds for the survival of most mammals. "Going back 50,000 years, social distance from a group could lead to death and it still does for most infant mammals," Lieberman said. "We may have evolved a sensitivity to anything that would indicate that we're being excluded. This automatic alarm may be a signal for us to reestablish social bonds before harm befalls us."
"These findings show how deeply rooted our need is for social connection," Eisenberger said. "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 explanation is consistent with past research on mammals. Hamster mothers with damaged cingulates no longer take steps to keep their pups near and infant squirrel monkeys similarly affected no longer produce a spontaneous cry when separated from their mothers. In human mothers, fMRIs have shown that infant cries increase activity in the cingulate.
The prefrontal cortex, meanwhile, has been found to be key to thinking in words and controlling behavior, urges, emotions and thought. So researchers theorize that the prefrontal cortex may inhibit the cingulate as opposed to the other way around. "Verbalizing distress may partially shut down areas of the brain that register distress," Lieberman said. "The regulating abilities of the prefrontal cortex may be why therapy and expressing painful feelings in poems and diaries is therapeutic." >from *Rejection Affects Human Brain in Same Way as Physical
Pain, Finds UCLA-Led Team*. October 9, 2003
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