How our bodies treat rejection like physical pain cover image

How our bodies treat rejection like physical pain

Dorian Minors • February 25, 2016

This is an archived article from our predecessor website, The Dirt Psychology. The idea there was to take psychological scholarship and turn it into wisdom. The Armchair Collective tries to go a little further than just psychology. As such, these articles live here in archive form, until they're updated.

Would you believe me if I said that your body treats social pain just as seriously as physical pain? By the time we're done here you will. A functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) device is a machine that can scan your brain to see what parts are active at the time of the scan. It's functional because you can scan the brain while you do stuff. This way we can see how your brain lights up to identify patterns and thus potentially how the brain works. So, for instance, here's a model of a woman's brain during orgasm (it lights up like crazy, unsurprisingly). Says something about our society that I couldn't find a blokes brain during orgasm...

 s s

Anyway. If you hurt someone during an fMRI scan, you brain lights up in the rough shape of a pattern we now know is your brain responding to pain. Doesn't matter what kind of pain; heat or cold, a prick on the finger, a chemical. It'll activate in roughly the same way quite reliably.

Our brains panic when we're in pain

The parts of the brain that light up are the parts responsible for our motor reflexes (like, 'jerk away, NOW!') and other parts that are associated with talking to other parts of our body. A lot of it appears to be related to the areas of our mind that light up when something important is happening, the emotional parts of our brain like the amygdala and the surrounding limbic system. Then the part of our brain that assesses our emotions for their validity kicks in, the anterior cingulate cortex. Essentially our brain is working hard to let us know that it doesn't like what's going on and encouraging you to do something about it (emotions are motivating behaviours, you see).

Our brains equate pain and exclusion

So, let's say you put someone in an fMRI machine and you chat to them. You and a few of your confederate friends. You're gonna do something mean though. After striking up a conversation that everyone is into, you're going to stop talking to the person in the fMRI. You might even leave the room. You're going to social exclude them. When you do that, you find something very interesting. You find that their brain lights up just like that time they went in for that pain study.

boxer-boxing-fight-3797-756x550 Just ask someone with social phobia what they would prefer. A beating, or the ability to leave the house.

The brain treats rejection like actual pain. Still don't believe me? What about the fact that taking pain meds helps alleviate that crushing feeling you get in your chest? Heartbreak, homesickness, they feel like real and physical ailments for a reason. Social exclusion represents just as big a threat to us as physical pain. It's why approach anxiety is a thing. There are entire sub-clinical and clinical disorders that arise because of this. Yep, our body treats social pain just like physical pain and it can hurt just as much.

"The marks humans leave are too often scars" - John Green, A Fault in our Stars

Want to feel worse? Learn how reading a good book can boost your empathy. Get a bit of that approach anxiety? Learn how to make killer first impressions. Turning scholarship into wisdom without the usual noise and clutter, we dig up the dirt on psychological theories you can use. Become an armchair psychologist with The Dirt Psychology.

Turning scholarship into wisdom we can use at The Armchair Collective.

Questions? Comments? Comment sections are a pain to moderate. But this inbox is always read, so send an email. You'll get a reply. Your question might even get a whole article of its own.

More articles? View them all, or check these out:

Dorian Minors

I mostly do brain science. Sometimes I train honeybees. I promise they're related. I made this site because there's no reason why scholars should be the only ones to own knowledge. My special interests are interpersonal relationships, the science of community, spirituality and the brain, and the neural basis of complex behaviour. I hope this stuff is as interesting to you as it is to me. You can find out more about me here.