Social rejection and physical pain are linked


Social rejection and actual physical pain ‘hurt’ in the same way, scientists report, having identified the shared neurons that are activated in response to the very different types of negative experience. Jasmine Malone reports.


Heartbreak does actually hurt, according to the first study that shows shared neurons are activated during both physical pain and intense social rejection. – Getty Images

LONDON: Social rejection and actual physical pain ‘hurt’ in the same way, scientists report, having identified the shared neurons that are activated in response to the very different types of negative experience.

The study is the first to prove that rejection and physical pain don’t just feel the same, they also share the same somatosensory pathways and that from a neurological perspective, emotional pain has a lot more in common with physical pain than it does with other emotions.

“On the surface, spilling a hot cup of coffee on yourself and thinking about how rejected you feel when you look at the picture of a person that you recently experienced an unwanted break-up with may seem to elicit very different types of pain,” said lead author Ethan Kross, social psychologist at the University of Michigan in the U.S. “But this research shows that they may be even more similar than initially thought.”

Different ‘pain’, same ‘hurt’

Previous studies have shown that both physical pain and social rejection are processed in the same regions of the brain but have failed to prove a deeper connection between the two.

Kross and his colleagues have now shown that there is neural overlap between both of these experiences in the brain regions that become active when people experience painful sensations in their body.

The study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, has also revealed two previously unknown brain regions which the researchers identified as the secondary somatosensory cortex and the dorsal posterior insula.

Heat and heartbreak

The team recruited 40 individuals that had undergone heartbreak by being rejected by a romantic partner in the past six months, describing the experience as making them feel socially rejected. The participants’ brains were scanned with functional MRI while they underwent social and physical tasks that were both positive and negative.

The negative social rejection task consisted of looking at a photograph of the former love interest that had rejected them and recalling the feelings of rejection. The second was looking at a photograph of a friend and recalling a positive experience with them.

Heat was used to induce pain during the first part of the physical task, while the second part involved pleasant heat stimulation in the same part of the arm.

Emotional pain different from emotions

Results of the functional MRI scans were then compared with a previous MRI study of patients reporting a variety of responses to pain, including physical and emotional types.

“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.

The researchers hope that their findings will eventually help explain how rejection in some extreme cases can result in physical illness, such as fibromyalgia, which associates symptoms including debilitating fatigue, widespread pain and joint stiffness with psychiatric conditions such as depression and anxiety and stress-related disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder.

Physical pain is not metaphorical

Matthew Lieberman, a professor of psychology, psychiatry and behavioural sciences at the University of California said that the paper adds to existing knowledge in many important ways.

“Kross and colleagues have shown that when people experience both social and physical pain in the scanner – just moments apart – they recruit the same brain regions. Some of the pain regions they show are additional regions that we haven’t seen before,” he said.

“It really extends what we’ve been saying for a decade and helps to nail down that the overlap between social and emotional pain is not metaphorical, it’s real,” he added.

Latest Stories
MoreMore Articles