Pain, Social Rejection Have Similar Effect on Brain

Study Suggests Similarities in Physical Pain and Emotional Pain

Medically Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on March 28, 2011
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March 28, 2011 -- Rejection really does hurt. That’s the message of a new study that suggests physical pain and the pain of rejection may “hurt” in the same way.

Researchers found that physical pain and intense emotional pain, such as feelings of rejection after a bad breakup of a relationship, activate the same “pain” processing pathways in the brain.

"These results give new meaning to the idea that social rejection 'hurts,'" says researcher Ethan Kross, PhD of the University of Michigan, in a news release.

"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 breakup with may seem to elicit very different types of pain,” says Kross. “But this research shows that they may be even more similar than initially thought."

Comparing ‘Painful’ Situations

In the study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers recruited 40 people who experienced an unwanted romantic breakup within the past six months. Each of the participants said thinking about their breakup made them feel intensely rejected.

Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), researchers analyzed the participants’ brain activity during two “painful” situations.

In one scenario, the participants looked at a picture of their ex-partner and thought about how they felt rejected during their breakup experience. In a different scenario, the participants experienced mild physical pain similar to holding a very hot coffee cup.

The results showed that in both situations the same regions of the brain were activated, the secondary somatosensory cortex and the dorsal posterior insula. Both of these regions have previously been implicated in physical pain processing.

"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," says Kross. "These findings are consistent with the idea that the experience of social rejection, or social loss more generally, may represent a distinct emotional experience that is uniquely associated with physical pain."

Researchers say the results suggest that pain and social rejection may have overlapping sensory mechanisms in the brain. If confirmed by further studies, the findings may offer new insight into how social rejection may lead to various physical pain symptoms and disorders.

Show Sources


Kross, E. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, March 28, 2011, online advance edition.

News release, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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