Physical pain and intense feelings of social rejection “hurt” in the same way, a new study conducted at Columbia University shows. The results, published in the March 28 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, demonstrate that the same regions of the brain that become active in response to painful sensory experiences are activated during intense experiences of social rejection.
New Study Underscores Link Between Physical Pain and Social Rejection
While earlier research has shown that the same brain regions support the emotionally distressing feelings that accompany the experience of both physical pain and social rejection, this study is the first to establish that there is neural overlap between both of these experiences in brain regions that have long been known to become active when people experience painful sensations in their bodies. These regions are known as the secondary somatosensory cortex and the dorsal posterior insula.
“We went beyond previous studies of rejection by using a more powerful means of inducing feelings of rejection,” said Edward Smith , the study’s communicating author, professor of psychology at Columbia and director of the division of cognitive neuroscience at the New York State Psychiatric Institute. Smith conducted the study with Ethan Kross, lead author of the article, formerly of Columbia and now an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Michigan; Marc Berman, now also in the psychology department at Michigan; Walter Mischel , professor of psychology at Columbia; and Tor Wager, now associate professor of psychology at the University of Colorado, Boulder.
“Rather than try and create a relatively tame rejection experience in the laboratory, we took advantage of ‘natural misfortunes,’” Smith said. “We recruited into our study 40 people who had experienced an unwanted romantic breakup within the past six months and who indicated that thinking about their breakup experience led them to feel intensely rejected. Then we showed these people pictures of their ex-partners while they were having their brains scanned.”
“We found that powerfully inducing feelings of social rejection activate regions of the brain that are involved in physical pain sensation, which are rarely activated in neuroimaging studies of emotion,” said Kross. “These findings suggest that the experience of social rejection, or social loss more generally, may represent a distinct emotional experience that is uniquely associated with physical pain.”
Each participant in the study completed two tasks—one related to feelings of rejection and the other to sensations of physical pain. During the rejection task, a participant viewed either a photo of a former partner and was asked to think about how they felt during the break-up experience, or the participant viewed a photo of a friend and was asked to think about a recent positive experience they had had with that person. During the physical pain task, a thermal stimulation device was attached to the participant’s left forearm. On some trials the probe delivered a painful but tolerable stimulation akin to holding a very hot cup of coffee. On other trials it delivered non-painful, warm stimulation.
Each participant performed all tasks while undergoing functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) scans. All participants were fully debriefed at the end of the study in order to ensure there was no lingering distress.
The researchers hope the findings will offer new insight into how the experience of intense social loss may lead to various physical pain symptoms and disorders. And they point out that the findings affirm the wisdom of cultures around the world that use the same language—words like “hurt” and “pain”—to describe the experience of both physical pain and social rejection.
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