Social connection, rejection, and pain

Ever felt pain in your body when you see that someone else has been injured? That’s because we are wired to be deeply socially connected. Our brains may be so much larger than other species because that allows us to connect in complex ways with the large social groups in which we live. This is the argument discussed by Dr. Matthew Lieberman on last week’s NPR radio show Science Friday.
I love listening to Science Friday because it’s where I get to hear about the latest behavioral science research without having to take another class or read another academic article. Dr. Lieberman discussed why as humans we are so drawn to social connection – why, neurologically, we have a need to connect with others. He recently came out with a book on this topic, Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect.

Whether a loved one dies, you get made fun of in school, or you break up with a significant other, we all experience social pain. What is very noteworthy in that statement is that we call social difficulties “painful” or “hurtful.” We use the same terminology for socially difficult situations as we do for physical injury. Dr. Lierberman and other researchers in this field like Dr. Naomi Eisenberger have conducted research on the neural underpinnings of social pain. They wanted to know — Do we actually experience “pain” when we are hurting emotionally? To do this, they watch people’s brain activity during social pain and compare it to brain activity during physical pain. Research participants are put in an fMRI scanner and made to feel excluded (to learn how – read this). Turns out that the same part of the brain that activates when we are feeling physical pain, lights up during social pain. So saying a break up is “painful” or that an insult is “hurtful” is accurately describing what someone is feeling and what is going on in their brain.

Another interesting tidbit from the radio show was about why gossip is a useful human tool.  Evolutionarily, gossip developed because it plays an important role in our social lives. Gossip is how we communicate and evaluate where we stand in our social group.  We have to understand the dynamics of a very large groups in order to survive in society. And gossip helps us do that. It makes me wonder about whether there is a reason gossip happens more in middle and high school. Maybe as we are going through puberty, we instinctually want to compare ourselves to see how attractive we will be to potential mates, so we all help each other do that by gossiping about one another?

To learn more, listen to the Science Friday show, or check out Dr. Lieberman’s recent Tedx Talk.