After going through a bad breakup or getting dumped, you may feel sick to your stomach, and your sobs may be accompanied by a headache. Stress and emotions can manifest in different parts of our bodies, possibly because emotional pain activates certain areas of the brain that are linked to physical pain as well, new research says.
A new study by researchers at the International School for Advanced Studies (SISSA) suggests that emotional and social pain — like rejection — in ourselves but also in others can activate physical pain. The researchers found that when we see someone else experience an embarrassing moment in front of a crowd or get rejected, our inner empathy leads us to share that experience with them. “[E]xperiencing events that represent a significant threat to social bonds activates a network of brain areas associated with the sensory-discriminative aspects of pain,” the authors state in the abstract.
The researchers developed an experiment that involved a simulated ball tossing game, where one player was excluded by others — a condition of social pain. These excluded people, or their assigned partners, were analyzed using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which identified which parts of the brain were activated during the test. In another experiment, the excluded participant or his/her partner were given a “mildly painful” stimulus, which is a condition of physical pain. “Our data have shown that in conditions of social pain there is activation of an area traditionally associated with the sensory processing of physical pain, the posterior insular cortex,” Giorgia Silani, a lead author of the study, said in a press release. “This occurred both when the pain was experienced in first person and when the subject experienced in vicariously.”
Previous studies have shown that social rejection influenced similar brain circuits as physical pain. One study likened bad breakups to spilled hot coffee: they both had similar effects on the brain. “When we sat around and thought about the most difficult emotional experiences, we all agreed that it doesn’t get any worse than social rejection,” Ethan Kross, assistant psychology professor at the University of Michigan and one of the study’s authors, told The New York Times.
But Silani’s study adds another level to the social-physical pain link. The conclusion ultimately says that not only does our own rejection cause the physical pain part in our brains to light up, but this also happens when we watch someone else experience the same painful moments socially. “Our findings lend support to the theoretical model of empathy that explains involvement in other people’s emotions by the fact that our representation is based on the representation of our own emotional experience in similar conditions,” Silani said in the press release.
Source: Novembre G, Silani G, Zanon M. Empathy for social exclusion involves the sensory-discriminative component of pain: a within-subject fMRI study. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience. 2014.