New research shows that rejection hurts -- literally.

According to a study featured in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers found that the most intense forms of rejection created a physical response in the brain.

Analysis by Marianne English


Essentially, the same areas of the brain that usually light up during physical pain brightened when subjects conjured up feelings of social rejection.

The study focused on 40 subjects who experienced intense rejection from an unwanted breakup. While being scanned by functional MRI, subjects completed two tasks: one that required looking at photos of their ex-partner and another similarly aged friend of the same sex; the other task subjected participants to hot and warm physical stimuli on their arms.

The first task was intended to create an emotionally painful experience, whereas the second created brief physical pain. For both tasks, subjects reported their level of distress on a scale from zero to five.

Researchers found that viewing an ex-partner was equally distressing as the brief bout of physical pain, according to subjects.

Their brains showed this similarity as well.

The dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (dACC), the anterior insula (AI) and parts of the thalamus were active during social rejection and physical pain.

Despite these overlaps, it's important to note the situations didn't activate these areas to an equal degree.

In a similar light, degrees of intensity may reveal why being rejected by a stranger you just met isn't the same -- or as hurtful -- as an unwanted breakup from a romantic relationship. Ultimately, it's the most intense forms of rejection that affect the brain in this way, researchers say.

In addition, the scientists admit that since subjects were trained to complete the tasks, they might have experienced a "priming effect" in which previous exposure to the tasks may have affected reactions while being tested.

Because of this, the authors acknowledge the distressing nature of social rejection and pain, but admit more research needs to be done. The research may also provide insight to why some people develop physical pain disorders, or those in which people feel pain without a physical cause.

Other News