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Social Pain

In Your Brain At Work, David Rock suggests that social exclusion feels physically painful because it’s processed by the same brain regions as physical pain.

He cites research performed by Naomi Eisenberger, a social neuroscientist at the University of California on what happens when we feel socially excluded:

“What we found is that when people were excluded, you see activity in the dorsal portion of the anterior cingulate cortex, which is the neural region that’s also involved in the distressing component of pain, or what sometimes people call the ‘suffering component’ of pain. Those people who felt the most rejected had the highest levels of activity in this region.”

Eisenberger goes into more detail about her research in a fascinating interview with Edge.

If the processing of physical and social pain are linked, does this mean that those who are more sensitive to physical pain are more sensitive to social rejection too?

“We found that subjects who, at baseline, are naturally more sensitive to physical pain are the ones who later on report feeling more rejected where they get excluded.

We've also seen some genetic evidence for this. We find that people who carry the more rare version of the mu-opioid gene, which is linked to a greater sensitivity to physical pain, are individuals who have a genetic disposition to be more sensitive to physical pain. These are the same individuals who report feeling more upset by social rejection; they show greater pain related neural activity in response to social exclusion.”

What about painkillers? Does this mean they can suppress social pain too?

“One of the most interesting studies we've done is one where we looked at acetaminophen. We typically think of acetaminophen as a physical painkiller. In this particular study, we randomly assigned people to either take it everyday for two weeks or take a placebo everyday for two weeks. Instead of measuring their physical pain, we measured their social pain. We asked them each evening to rate their hurt feelings. We also then brought them in at the end of a separate study to look at their neural sensitivity to social exclusion. What we found is that the people who were taking acetaminophen reported less hurt feelings than people who were taking placebo, and they showed less pain related activity to social exclusion, just as a function of taking acetaminophen.”

Eisenberger has also studied social connectedness. Because we often talk about these as “warm” feelings, she decided to investigate whether they activated the same brain regions that process temperature.

“To look at physical warmth, we have them holding onto one of those warm packs that athletes will use where they crack them open and shake them up and it produces warmth in the packet. We scanned people when they were holding warm packs and a neutral temperature pack, and we also scanned them while they were experiencing social warmth. To do this we had the participants’ family members and friends, before the scanning session, write email messages to the participants. These were loving, tender messages that the subjects saw for the first time when they were in the fMRI scanner…

Some of the same regions that are processing physical warmth and the pleasantness of that sensory experience were the same ones processing the social warmth that people are getting from these loving messages.”

Good social relationships are widely believed to be important for health. The common perception is that this is because of the support we receive from these relationships. However, Eisenberger’s research has shown that the ability to offer support to others may be just as important.

“So we ran a study where we brought in couples, and the female member of the couple was in the fMRI scanner, and essentially we scanned her brain while she was providing support to her partner. Her partner stood just outside of the fMRI scanner, and on certain trials he received electric shock. The female could support him on some trials by holding his arm as he went through this experience…

There were two main findings here. The first is that we saw reward-related activity when people were providing support to somebody else… We actually saw more reward-related activity when the females were touching their partners when they were getting pain—when they were support-giving—compared to when they were just touching their partners and their partners weren't getting pain. It seems like maybe there was something more rewarding about being able to provide support than just being able to be in physical contact with your partner when they're not going through anything negative.

The last interesting finding was that the females who showed more reward-related activity when they were support-giving were also the ones who showed less activity in the amygdala. This is a region that's involved in a lot of different things, but one of the things that it's involved in is processing threat…

The idea here is that to the extent that we're in a caregiving situation, we need to remain calm… There may be something about caregiving that actually turns down our own internal stress level so that we can engage and provide adaptive help to others.”

So next time you’re feeling rejected, take some painkillers, pull on a warm sweater, and find someone else to help.

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