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Hurt Feelings Truly Hurt

Snub or Sting, Brain Feels the Same Pain
WebMD Health News

Oct. 10, 2003 -- The pain of hurt feelings is as real as the pain of physical injury, new brain studies show.

The findings appear in the Oct. 10 issue of the journal Science. UCLA researcher Matthew D. Lieberman, PhD, used real-time brain scans to map brain activity in people feeling social distress.

The findings: The areas of the brain that light up when a person feels physical pain also light up when a person's feelings are hurt.

"We use physical metaphors to describe social pain like 'a broken heart' or 'hurt feelings,'" Lieberman says in a news release. "Now we see that there is a good reason for this."

The Pain of Monkey-in-the-Middle

Remarkably, the experiment by Lieberman and co-workers Naomi I. Eisenberger and Kipling D. Williams, PhD, didn't hurt the 13 student volunteers very much.

Encased in an MRI brain-scanning machine, the students played a simple video game. They were one of three players tossing a virtual ball to one another. At first, the students had to watch as the other two players tossed the ball. Then their controls became active, and they played for awhile. But soon the two other players -- computerized stooges, really -- played only with each other. As the students realized they were being left out, it hurt.

This made the area associated with pain light up. The more activity in a student's pain area, the more painful the student rated the experience.

"We can say being excluded doesn't matter, but rejection of any form still appears to register automatically in the brain," Lieberman says.

The Healing Power of Language

But the pain area wasn't the only part of the brain to become active. Being left out also activated an area associated with language and the regulation of emotion. Students with more activity in this area reported less pain.

"Verbalizing distress may partly shut down the areas of the brain that register distress," Lieberman says. "The regulating abilities of the prefrontal cortex may be why therapy and expressing painful feelings in poems and diaries is therapeutic."

Humans Are Social Animals

Why did the human brain evolve to feel emotional pain? In this we aren't alone. Social loss triggers distress signals in the brains of other animals whose survival depends on social bonds, notes an accompanying editorial by Jaak Panksepp, PhD. Panksepp is a researcher at Bowling Green State University, Bowling Green, Ohio, and Northwestern University, Evanston, Ill.

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