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Bruised Egos Said to Cause Physical Pain

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  • Bruised Egos Said to Cause Physical Pain

    October 9, 2003
    Bruised Egos Said to Cause Physical Pain
    By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

    WASHINGTON (AP) -- A rejected lover's broken heart may cause as much
    distress in a pain center of the brain as an actual physical injury,
    according to new research.

    California researchers have found a physiological basis for social
    pain by monitoring the brains of people who thought they had been
    maliciously excluded from a computer game by other players.

    Naomi I. Eisenberger, a scientist at the University of California, Los
    Angeles and the first author of the study to be published Friday in
    the journal Science, said the study suggests that the need for social
    inclusiveness is a deep-seated part of what it means to be human.

    ``These findings show how deeply rooted our need is for social
    connection,'' said Eisenberger. ``There's something about exclusion
    from others that is perceived as being as harmful to our survival as
    something that can physically hurt us, and our body automatically
    knows this.''

    Eisenberger and her co-authors created a computer game in which test
    subjects were led to believe they were playing ball with two other
    players. At some point, the other players seemed to exclude the test
    subject from the game -- making it appear the test subject had been
    suddenly rejected and blocked from playing with the group.

    The shock and distress of this rejection registered in the same part
    of the brain, called the anterior cingulate cortex, that also responds
    to physical pain, Eisenberger said.

    ``The ACC is the same part of the brain that has been found to be
    associated with the unpleasantness of physical pain, the part of pain
    that really bothers us,'' Eisenberger said.

    Eisenberger said the study suggests that social exclusion of any sort
    ---- divorce, not being invited to a party, being turned down for a
    date ---- would cause distress in the ACC.

    ``You can imagine that this part of the brain is active any time we
    are separated from our close companions,'' she said. ``It would
    definitely be active when we experience a loss,'' such as a death or
    the end of a love affair.

    In a commentary in Science, Jaak Panksepp of the department of
    psychology at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, said earlier
    studies have shown that the anterior cingulate cortex is linked to
    physical pain.

    He said the new study by Eisenberger and her co-authors demonstrates
    that the ACC is also activated by the distress of social exclusion.

    ``Throughout history poets have written about the pain of a broken
    heart,'' Panksepp said in his commentary. ``It seems that such poetic
    insights into the human condition are now supported by
    neurophysiological findings.''

    The tendency to feel rejection as an acute pain may have developed in
    humans as a defensive mechanism for the species, said Eisenberger.

    ``Because we have such a long time as infants and need to be taken
    care of, it is really important that we stay close to the social
    group. If we don't we're not going to survive,'' said Eisenberger.
    ``The hypothesis is that the social attachment system that makes sure
    we don't stray too far from the group piggybacked onto the pain system
    to help our species survive.''

    This suggests that the need to be accepted as part of a social group
    is as important to humans as avoiding other types of pain, she said.

    Just as an infant may learn to avoid fire by first being burned,
    humans may learn to stick together because rejection causes distress
    in the pain center of the brain, said Eisenberger.

    ``If it hurts to be separated from other people, then it will prevent
    us from straying too far from the social group,'' she said.

    ^------

    On the Net:

    Science: http://www.sciencemag.org


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