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Science File

Hurt Feelings? Your Brain Feels Your Pain

October 11, 2003|Usha Lee McFarling | Times Staff Writer

A snub, it turns out, is the same as a stub.

A new study published in the journal Science this week shows two key areas of the brain react in the same way whether a person is feeling a body blow or a social blow.

UCLA social psychologists Naomi I. Eisenberger and Matthew D. Lieberman used functional magnetic resonance imaging to monitor the brains of 13 test subjects who played a computer game involving a three-way ball toss. They compared the scans of subjects who played a normal game with scans taken during a game in which subjects were excluded and not tossed the ball.

After being excluded, the subjects reported feeling distressed, rejected and offended. A part of the brain called the anterior cingulate, which is known to be associated with distress and physical pain, was activated when the subjects were excluded. The results showed that social pain shares the same brain mechanisms as physical pain.

"It's almost a poetic connection," Eisenberger said. She added that terms like "broken heart" and "hurt feelings" may be quite accurate.

Lieberman said the sting of social pain was closely linked to visceral or internal pain -- something akin to a punch in the gut.

The anterior cingulate is involved in the distress felt by humans with chronic pain conditions and animals when separated from their littermates.

The study also found that people who experienced less discomfort had more activity in the prefrontal cortex, suggesting that part of the brain may work to reduce the fear and anxiety associated with pain or distress.

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