The 'pain' of rejection

"From the Archives", first published in the Digest 10.11.03.

When rock group REM sing "everybody hurts sometimes" they are, of course, referring to the inevitability of emotional anguish rather than our shared need to occasionally reach for the paracetemol. But forget poetic licence, new research suggests this tendency to express emotional angst in terms of physical pain is scientifically justified.

Naomi Eisenberger (pictured) and colleagues scanned the brains of 13 undergraduates while they each played 'virtual' catch with two other people. Participants believed cartoon images represented the other players but in fact the whole procedure was run by a computer programme. In the "explicit rejection" condition, the imaginary players appeared to deliberately ignore the participant, passing the ball only between themselves.

Eisenberger found activity in the anterior cingulate cortex - previously linked to the experience of physical pain - was increased during the "rejection condition" and correlated with participants' self-reported feelings of exclusion. Meanwhile, activity in the right ventral prefrontal cortex - previously associated with the regulation of physical pain - was correlated with reduced distress following rejection. The authors concluded that "social pain is analogous to physical pain, alerting us when we have sustained injury to our social connections".

Eisenberger, N.I., Lieberman, M.D. & Williams, K.D. (2003). Does rejection hurt? An fMRI study of social exclusion. Science, 290-292.

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