A Pain in the Brain

We say,  “It hurts.”  “Our hearts are broken.”   “It was like being punched in the gut.”  This is the language we use when we attempt to describe how it feels to lose connection with people we love.  Whether it be a romantic break-up, a loss of a friendship or the death of loved one, we talk of the experience in terms of physical pain.  What if the way we describe rejection and loss is not just a metaphor?

Neuroscientist, Matthew Lieberman, and social psychologist, Naomi Eisenberger, set out to explore this question using an fMRI machine and a virtual ball tossing game.  To simulate social rejection and what is termed ‘social pain’ in scientific circles, the subjects were after a period cut out of the game.  Instead of the ball being thrown equally between three players, it was  thrown exclusively between the two other game players.  Unbeknownst to the test subjects, the two other game players were avatars, not on-line players like themselves.  A brain scanner captured the results of this.

According to Lieberman in his book, Social: Why our brains are wired to connectnot only did the test subjects who reported feeling more hurt by the exclusion show more activity in particular parts of the brain, the kinds of activity were the same as would be expected when experiencing physical pain.  “Looking at the screens, side by side, without knowing which was an analysis of physical pain and which was an analysis of social pain, you wouldn’t have been able to tell the difference,” said Lieberman.

Eisenberger suggested a reason for this in her edge.org conversation on social pain.  “Maybe the same regions which process physical pain have been borrowed over the course of our evolutionary history to process social pain.”  It’s a fascinating idea, but why?

According to both Lieberman and Eisenberger, the answer is a problem of physics.  Large-brained mammals cannot be born at maturity like many other animals.  Their heads are too big.  Instead, much of their brain maturation must occur outside the womb and this presents evolution with a conundrum.    How does a species survive, if its infants are unable to take care of themselves?

Flip Maslow on his Head

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

The answer may be to rank social connection right up there with the pain of hunger, the pain of cold and the pain of thirst.  In effect, have the need for social connection infiltrate those systems in the brain which register pain.  Maslow’s hierarchy of needs would have us believe social need is tertiary to physiological and safety needs, but the work of Lieberman and Eisenberger suggest otherwise.  “What all mammalian infants, from tree shrews to human babies, really need from the moment of birth is a caregiver who is committed to making sure that the infants biological needs are met.  If this is true then Maslow had it wrong,” says Lieberman.  Apparently, for the system to work, it has to be a two-way street.  Babies need to need their parent and the parent needs to need their baby.  That’s what the infant distress call is all about in mammals.  Babies come already primed to emit them when the caregiver exits their proximity and caregivers are primed to respond, even when it would be personally dangerous for them to do so.  Lieberman says, “We all inherited an attachment system that lasts a lifetime, which means we never get past the pain of social rejection, just as we never get past the pain of hunger.”

Take a Tylenol

What does this mean though in terms of our social pain?  Is hiding the pain we feel when rejected in the school yard or the workplace, the same thing as hiding the pain of a bad back or a broken leg?  Lieberman says in his TedTalks speech, The Social Brain and its Superpowers, “Social pain is real pain.  I don’t mean to suggest that a broken heart is the same as a broken leg, any more than a stomach ache is the same as arthritis, but we distinguish various kinds of pain and social pain ought to be awarded membership in the pain club.”

Fair enough, but this co-opting of the pain systems in the brain to ensure social connections did lead to another interesting study where Eisenberger and another researcher, Nathan DeWall, gave half of the test subjects a placebo and the other half 1000mg of acetaminophen (Tylenol) every day for three weeks.  Every night the participants emailed answers to questions on their levels of social pain back to the researchers.  Eisenberger and DeWall found  by from the ninth day onwards, the participants on the painkiller, Tylenol continued to experience less and less social pain.  A follow-up study where a fMRI scan was used and the virtual game of ball tossing was employed again, with subjects excluded from the game, confirmed the previous study.  Those on the placebo showed similar results to the previous virtual game, while the brains of those taking the painkiller showed a reduced sensitivity to the pain of rejection.

There is much more to learned about social pain and the social connectivity of humans than can exist in this blog post, but if you wish to read more invest in Lieberman’s book (link is above).  Feeling left out, not being picked for a school yard team, being overlooked in the dating game, being dumped by a girlfriend or boyfriend, experiencing the breakdown of a long-term relationship and losing someone we love does cause us real pain and perhaps as Lieberman suggests, we really should give social pain its dues.






Michael Pollock

Great post thank you:) Allowing ourselves to feel our social pain, like we do physical pain, could also have us seek a remedy like we would if we were physically injured. I think we should call it a “Social Injury” 🙂 What do you think?????

Gabrielle Blondell

I think you are right. It certainly legitimises our feelings of being left out at times. It’s not just selfishness. We have an evolutionary imperative to fit in and when we don’t, we feel real pain.