If you listen closely to the ways in which people describe their experiences of social rejection, you will notice an interesting pattern : we use words representing physical pain to describe these psychologically distressing events. For example, we all know the feeling of not being picked for a workgroup, invited to a party, or even asked to join a conversation taking place among co-workers. In other words, we are all social beings, we like to be part of a group.
Picture this simple social experiment for a moment. You’re playing an online game where the players pass a ball among themselves. Every player gets a turn to throw the ball around. Yet, this doesn’t last – it wouldn’t be an experiment if it was, now would it – you begin to realize that the other two players are pitching the ball only to themselves, and not to you. After a while, you’re being completely ignored.
Now, imagine this situation in your everyday life, and two people know suddenly decide to treat you like you’re invisible – how do you think you’d feel ? Understandably, you would be confused. However, in this virtual game, you don’t know the other players and, you might suspect the game is rigged. Yet, you still feel unhappy.
Dr. Lierberman and other researchers in this field like Dr. Naomi Eisenberger have conducted research on the neural mechanisms of social pain. By watching people’s brain activity during social pain and compare it to brain activity during physical pain, researchers have managed to know if we actually experience pain when we are hurting emotionally. It turns out that the same part of the brain that is activated when we are feeling physical pain, lights up during social pain. Therefore, saying a break up is painful or that an insult is hurtful is accurately describing what you might be feeling and what is going on in your brain.
As a result, if emotional and physical pain actives the same regions on our brain, could painkillers reduce the pain of social rejection?
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