Social Rejection Doesn’t Only Hurt – It Kills
Why do we always describe social rejection in terms of physical pain? In her article for Aeon, science writer Elitsa Dermendzhiyska examines the intimate connection between physical and emotional pain and explores what it means for our wellbeing when the brain makes no distinction between a broken bone and an aching heart.
In a landmark experiment in 2003, Eisenberger and her colleagues had test subjects strapped with virtual-reality headsets. Peering through goggles, the participants could see their own hand and a ball, plus two cartoon characters – the avatars of fellow participants in another room. With the press of a button, each player could toss the ball to another player while the researchers measured their brain activity through fMRI scans. In the first round of CyberBall – as the game became known – the ball flew back and forth just as you’d expect, but pretty soon the players in the second room started making passes only to each other, completely ignoring the player in the first room. In reality, there were no other players: just a computer programmed to ‘reject’ each participant so that the scientists could see how exclusion – what they called ‘social pain’ – affects the brain.
Physical pain involves several brain regions, some of which detect its location, while others, such as the anterior insula (AI) and the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (dACC), process the subjective experience, the unpleasantness, of pain. In fMRI scans of people playing CyberBall, Eisenberger’s team saw both the AI and the dACC light up in participants excluded from the game. Moreover, those who felt the most emotional distress also showed the most pain-related brain activity. In other words, being socially rejected triggered the same neural circuits that process physical injury, and translate it into the experience we call pain. At the time, this was a radical idea – and it still is. It essentially suggests that the brain makes no distinction between a broken bone and an aching heart. Rejection, it tells us, actually hurts. For Eisenberger, this overlap between physical and social pain transcends scientific interest. ‘It reveals something to people that they probably already knew but maybe were afraid to believe,’ she told Edge magazine in 2014. ‘It’s not just in our head. It is in our head because it’s in our brain.’
Via Aeon, 30 April 2019. Read the full article here.
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