Love and the Modern-Day Hook Up

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Love Hurts…For Real

Social rejection experienced as physical pain

A recently published study suggests that intense feelings of social rejection are experienced in much the same way as physical pain. The study showed that the regions of our brain activated by physical pain are similarly activated when we are confronted with an intense experience of social rejection.

Earlier research demonstrated that the same areas of the brain support the sensation of emotional distress associated with both physical pain and social rejection. Results of this study amplify these earlier findings by being the first to establish that there is neural overlap in the activated brain regions associated with the two experiences.

University of Michigan social psychologist Ethan Kross, the principal author of the article appearing in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, notes that while, superficially, spilling a cup of hot coffee on yourself and recalling an experience of intense social rejection might appear to elicit vastly different types of pain, the experience of that pain may be more similar than was initially believed.

Researchers recruited 40 individuals who indicated that thinking about an unwanted romantic break-up that had occurred within the last six months prompted feelings of intense rejection. Each of these participants completed two tasks; one associated with their feelings of rejection, and the other related to sensations of physical pain.

In the rejection task, participants either viewed a photo of their ex-partner, recalling how they felt during their break-up experience or viewed a photo of a friend, recalling a recent positive experience related to that person. The physical pain task included a thermal stimulation device that was attached to participants' forearm that, in some instances, delivered a painful -- but tolerable -- stimulation similar to holding a very hot cup of liquid, and, in others, delivered a warm, non-painful stimulation.

Participants underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans while performing these tasks. Researchers analyzed the scans, focusing both on the whole brain as well as on various areas of interest identified in earlier studies of physical pain. In addition, researchers compared their results to more than 500 previously administered fMRI studies of brain response to things like physical pain, emotion, working memory, attention switching, long-term memory and interference resolution.

The findings show that powerfully inducing feelings of social rejection activate regions of the brain also involved in the sensation of physical pain, while those same brain regions are rarely activated in neuroimaging studies of emotion. Kross remarks that this is consistent with the idea that the experience of social rejection -- or, more generally speaking, social loss -- appears to represent a distinct emotional experience uniquely related to physical pain.

This, then, leads to a consideration of how intensely negative social experience can be associated with signs and symptoms of physical pain, and what that may then imply for understanding the attendant pain often associated with emotional dysregulation and mood disorders.

© 2011 Michael J. Formica, All Rights Reserved

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Love and the Modern-Day Hook Up