Pain killers could be used to dull the emotional pain of rejection in the future, scientists have claimed.
Researchers have discovered that emotional and physical pain cause similar reactions in the brain and are so similar that some studies have shown that taking painkillers can actually dull emotional pain, the authors claim.
Social rejection or being dumped can produce such a strong reaction that it is processed in the part of the brain that normally deals with physical pain.
Author Naomi Eisenberger, of the University of Califiornia, who examined the overlap between the types of pain in recent research, said: ‘Rejection is such a powerful experience for people.
‘If you ask people to think back about some of their earliest negative experiences, they will often be about rejection, about being picked last for a team or left out of some social group.’
She and her colleague noticed a correlation between brain activity in people who had experienced social rejection and others who had experienced physical pain.
‘We were sitting next to each other and noticed how similar the two brain images looked,’ she said.
They noticed the similarities in reaction ran through much of the research. Physical pain and social pain are processed in some of the same regions of the brain.
Physical pain has two aspects – the sensory experience of pain and the emotional component, in which the brain decides how negative or distressing the pain is.
It is the emotional component of physical pain that is shared with social pain.
However, some research also suggests that severe social rejection, like being dumped, can be processed in the part of your brain that handles the sensory component of pain – making a broken heart a physical as well as emotional reaction.
The two types of pain are also related, the authors claim, as people who are more sensitive to physical pain are also more sensitive to social pain.
The more sensitive people felt more rejected after completing a social exclusion task during which the other two players in a computer version of catch refuse to share the ball.
One study that was examined even found that people who took a pain killer for three weeks reported less hurt feelings than people who took a placebo.
Expressing her surprise at the findings Professor Eisenberger said: ‘It follows in a logical way from the argument that the physical and social pain systems overlap, but it’s still kind of hard to imagine.
‘We take the drug for physical pain; it’s not supposed to work on social pain.’
But Professor Eisenberger warned against taking pain killers for social pain instead claiming that rejection could be good for us.
She said: ‘I think it’s probably there for a reason – to keep us connected to others.
‘If we’re constantly numbing the feeling of social rejection, are we going to be more likely do things that get us rejected, that alienate us?’
In future research she plans to examine whether there are times when social pain becomes too much and should be treated but the research validates the pain of those who have been socially rejected.
Professor Eisenberger said: ‘We seem to hold physical pain in higher regard than social pain.
‘The research is sort of validating. It suggests that there is something real about this experience of pain that we have following rejection and exclusion.’
by David Livingstone