New research suggests that the same areas in the brain that are activated by physical pain are also activated at moments of intense social rejection.
“Social Rejection Shares Somatosensory Representations With Physical Pain,” was recently published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The study’s lead author, Ethan F. Kross, is an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Michigan.
For the study, 40 volunteers were recruited specifically because s/he felt intensely rejected as a result of a recent (unwanted) breakup. In the lab, participants were hooked up to MRI scanners to measure brain activity. They were then asked to look at photos of their former partners and think about a specific rejection experience involving that person. Later, they were asked to look at a photograph of a friend and think about a recent positive experience they had together.
Then participants took part in the more physical part of the study. They first were subject to thermal (painful yet tolerable) stimulation on their left forearms, simulating the experience of spilling hot coffee on themselves. Then they underwent a second thermal stimulation, which wasn't painful. Technicians monitored their brain activity to see which areas lit up.
The fMRI machine data indicated that bad breakups and hot coffee elicited similar responses in the brain.
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