If you never experienced the rejection of being picked last for a sports team, chances are you've
experienced the pain of a broken heart or being turned down for a date. Whatever the social
snub, researchers say the pain of denial is not just in our heads.
According to researchers, the brain seems to respond to the pain of hurt feelings in the same way
as physical pain. To study this phenomenon, investigators recruited 13 students to play a
computer-based game of catch with two other computer figures. Students' brain activities were
monitored using functional magnetic resonance imaging.
Though the figures were computer-generated, students believed the figures were linked to other
student players not in the room. During the first round of Cyberball, students were limited to
only watching the game. During round two, their playmates began tossing them the ball. After 40
throws, however, the other players began ignoring the student with no warning.
During the rounds when students did not participate in the game, fMRI scans showed high activity
in the part of the brain called the anterior cingulate cortex. Prior research links this region
to the processing of physical pain and pain's negative feeling. Also, students who reported
feeling the most distress from being ignored showed the greatest activity in this region.
Investigators think the pain of being rejected may have developed from the importance of social
bonds for survival in mammals. "Going back 50,000 years, social distance from a group could lead
to death, and it still does for most infant mammals," say researchers. "We may have evolved a
sensitivity to anything that would indicate that we're being excluded. This automatic alarm may
be a signal for us to re-establish social bonds before harm befalls us."
Thus researchers conclude that although the feelings of rejection and pain involve similar
processes, there are still differences. However these similarities help to explain why "hurt
feelings" of social exclusion and lost love really do hurt.