G C D7 G
Here comes the hurt again, you’d think I’d learn
The more that I believe in love, the more I get burned
G C D7 G
I’m lying right here again, so close to the flame
G C D7 G
Here comes the hurt again, but I’m used to the pain
~~From an old Mickey Gilley song
In addition to every other country song, the connection between love and pain can be found in the most ancient writings. And the love/pain association isn’t just historically contrived, nor is it only metaphorical; it’s literally hard-wired into our brains. “Hard-wired” in this case means that the tie between love (or, more accurately, social attachment/rejection) and pain is physiologically built into our brains before any social learning can take place. Why is that so?
Evolutionary psychologists could fill the agendas of a dozen international conferences debating the “why” or trying to identify the primal source of this rejection/pain connection. But, the bottom of the pyramid of conjectures is invariably basic survival of the species.
Some experts argue that the connection evolved as a result of the length of the human period of immaturity growing longer over the millennia. What other species beside humans have offspring who are largely unable to live independently until they are 12 or 13 years of age (or 28 or 38 in the extreme)? Thus, evolved the ability of human babies to recognize their primary source of food and protection (good old mom) after only about five hours of exposure.
Other experts argue that the primal source of the connection was the fact that in the wooly mammoth era, humans – lacking automatic weapons and titanium-jacketed ammo – needed to bond together and act in concert to overcome bigger, stronger, faster and, often, even more cunning foes.
Unless you’ve gone straight from being Homecoming King or Queen to being among the royalty in your current organization, you’ve undoubtedly experienced first-hand the debilitating pain of social rejection – by not being selected for a team, not being asked to the prom, not getting your dream job – or being fired from it. Teenagers in therapy often equate such rejections with what it must feel like to be punched hard in the stomach; a truly visceral reaction.
Thanks to the wonders of the latest brain-mapping technologies, we now know that there is a direct overlap in the neural circuitry underlying the perception of rejection and the experience of pain. That is, rejection directly activates the brain’s pain receptors.
Naomi Eisenberger of the UCLA Neurological Institute has shown just how primal the neural circuitry is. She created an experimental design in which three subjects apparently show up to participate at just about the same time. Unknown to the one “real” subject, the other two are confederates of Dr. Eisenberger. The three are given directions: They will each enter a soundproof booth and be seated at a game console. They are to play “Cyberball” according to the directions found on the screen.
When the real subject enters the booth, she is fitted with a pulse and blood pressure monitor and a portable brain-imaging cap. Once seated at the console, she sees cyber-characters like these on the screen:
The directions inform the subject that she controls the “hand” at the bottom middle of the screen. When the ball is thrown to her (i.e., to her cyber hand), she can then use a joy stick to throw the ball to either of the other characters. She is instructed to continue to choose between the characters, throwing the ball to one or the other until receiving further instructions.
Of course, the other two characters are controlled, not by human subjects, but by a protocol that Dr. Eisenberger has programmed into the “game.” For the first couple of minutes, the two programmed characters throw the ball randomly either to the other character or to the subject. Gradually, the subject receives the ball with less and less frequency until, eventually, the two characters throw the ball back and forth between themselves exclusively.
Okay. Imagine that you’re the subject. You know that you’re participating in an experiment at the Neurological Institute. You’re likely expecting something weird or at least unusual to occur. You haven’t even been introduced to the other two subjects, so there’s probably no chance that either one of them thinks you’re a jerk. There is no apparent reason why they would start to “reject”
you. So, you just calmly watch the screen, waiting for something different to occur, right?
No. Oh, no. Totally wrong.
As you are thrown the ball less frequently, your heart rate increases, your brain calls for more blood flow, especially oxygenated hemoglobin, and it starts secreting hormones that will literally cause you to feel pain. Later, during the debriefing, you will recall feeling slight discomfort either in your stomach or in your chest and that your heart rate had increased. In more extreme versions of the experiment, many subjects report having a headache.
Okay. Again, thanks to neuroscience, we know that there is a direct, physiological connection between social rejection and the experience of pain. But, of course, there’s nothing we can do
about it – other than bide our time – because after all, only love can mend a broken heart. Right?
Wrong. Brain & Behavior Blog Questions 2, you, zip.
The first neuroscientist to make the discovery is unclear. But, when research like Dr. Eisenberger’s became widely shared, someone, somewhere, looked at socially rejected subjects’ brain maps and said, “Hmmm. These firings look sort of like what you’d expect to see in the brain of someone who is experiencing a very strong headache.” And, what do most people do when they have a bad headache? They take some version of ibuprofen or naproxen! And, do you think that taking one or the other of these medicines has been subsequently shown to reduce painful symptoms associated with social rejection?
You’re right, it did.
…If only the Brain & Behavior Blogger knew that when Mary Ellen Ziegler dumped him for Tony Fanelli.
Original references for any studies, books or articles cited by the Brain and Behavior Blogger can be obtained by contact with his very dear frined, Dr. Rob Snyder (email@example.com), an organizational psychologist with a severe neuroscience-research-reading addiction.