Being rejected by other people is no fun.
Contrary to the old ‘sticks and stones’ saying, it seems words can and do hurt, and the brain responds accordingly.
A new study from the University of Michigan Medical School has found that the body produces natural painkillers in response to social rejection, just as if it had suffered a physical injury (Hsu et al., 2013).
The lead author, Assistant Professor David T. Hsu, explained:
“This is the first study to peer into the human brain to show that the opioid system is activated during social rejection. In general, opioids [are] released during social distress and isolation in animals, but where this occurs in the human brain has not been shown until now.”
In the study, social rejection was simulated in the lab. Eighteen participants were asked to look at fictional online dating profiles and choose some they were interested in.
Then, while lying in a PET scanner, they were told they’d been rejected by their potential online dates.
The scans showed that in response to the rejection, the brain sent out painkillers in the form of opioids into the spaces between neurons. This dampens down the pain signals.
In fact participants knew in advance that the online dating profiles were not real, and neither was the rejection. Nevertheless, the simulated situation was still enough to set off the release of painkillers.
Participants who were highly resilient were the most likely to produce high levels of the natural painkiller.
At the other end of the scale, those with low painkiller production may be particularly vulnerable to rejection. One of the authors, Professor Jon-Kar Zubieta explained:
“It is possible that those with depression or social anxiety are less capable of releasing opioids during times of social distress, and therefore do not recover as quickly or fully from a negative social experience.”
This is further evidence that social pain is not as different from physical pain as many thought. More and more research is pointing to an overlap in the brain’s response to both.
About the author
Psychologist, Jeremy Dean, PhD is the founder and author of PsyBlog. He holds a doctorate in psychology from University College London and two other advanced degrees in psychology.
He has been writing about scientific research on PsyBlog since 2004. He is also the author of the book “Making Habits, Breaking Habits” (Da Capo, 2003) and several ebooks:
- Accept Yourself: How to feel a profound sense of warmth and self-compassion
- The Anxiety Plan: 42 Strategies For Worry, Phobias, OCD and Panic
- Spark: 17 Steps That Will Boost Your Motivation For Anything
- Activate: How To Find Joy Again By Changing What You Do
Image credit: josemanuelerre
→ This post is part of a series on the 10 Most Awe-Inspiring Neuroscience Studies:
- Connectivity: The Difference Between Men’s and Women’s Brains
- Hidden Caves in the Brain Open Up During Sleep to Wash Away Toxins
- Like to Stay Up Late? Different Neural Structures Found in the Brains of Night Owls
- Debunked: ‘Right-Brain’ and ‘Left-Brain’ Personalities
- Remote Control of the Mind – Over the Internet
- Brain Ultrasound: How Sound Waves Can Boost Mood
- Social Rejection Triggers Release of Natural Painkillers in the Brain
- The Brain “Sees” Objects That You Don’t Perceive
- Childhood Poverty and Stress Harms Adult Brain Function
- Neuroscience Reveals The Deep Power of Human Empathy