Social rejection shares somatosensory representations with physical pain
Ethan Krossa,1, Marc G. Bermana, Walter Mischelb, Edward E. Smithb,c,1, and Tor D. Wagerd
Department of Psychology, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI 48109; bDepartment of Psychology, Columbia University, New York, NY 10027; cNew York State Psychiatric Institute, New York, NY 10032; Department of Psychology, University of Colorado, Boulder, CO 80309-0345
Contributed by Edward E. Smith, February 22, 2011 (sent for review October 05, 2010)
How similar are the experiences of social rejection and physical pain? Extant research suggests that a network of brain regions that support the affective but not the sensory components of physical pain underlie both experiences. Here we demonstrate that when rejection is powerfully elicited—by having people who recently experienced an unwanted break-up view a photograph of their ex-partner as they think about being rejected—areas that support the sensory components of physical pain (secondary somatosensory cortex; dorsal posterior insula) become active. We demon- strate the overlap between social rejection and physical pain in these areas by comparing both conditions in the same individuals using functional MRI. We further demonstrate the specificity of the secondary somatosensory cortex and dorsal posterior insula activity to physical pain by comparing activated locations in our study with a database of over 500 published studies. Activation in these regions was highly diagnostic of physical pain, with positive predictive values up to 88%. These results give new meaning to the idea that rejection “hurts.” They demonstrate that re- jection and physical pain are similar not only in that they are both distressing—they share a common somatosensory representation as well.
This research is helpful in demonstrating to the jury, neuro-scientifically, the similarities between emotional and physical pain. There are no pain pills for emotional pain, however. Emotional loss physically hurts. These finding support the interesting research on embodied cognition.