Your Brain and Social Rejection23 March 2015
Ever wondered why people say they feel ‘hurt’ by others’ comments? Or why we refer to losing in love as having our heart ‘broken’? These little language quirks have evolutionary origins which have made us desperate for affection.
We are hardwired to need to be included. Back when humans lived in hunter-gatherer societies, being in a group provided protection, food and shelter. So being rejected from the group almost certainly meant imminent death. It sounds a bit dramatic these days, but because the stakes were so high, humans became very good at detecting when rejection may occur so that rejected persons have a chance to regain status in the group.
The detection mechanism for rejection is psychological pain. And yes, it is literal pain. There is evidence to suggest that when experiencing either physical or psychological pain, the same centres in the brain activate. These structures are called the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (dACC) and the anterior insula (AI). fMRI studies have shown these areas light up even when people are excluded from a computer program in a virtual game of catch. The more intense the feeling of rejection, the higher the levels of activity in the dACC and the AI. It has also been shown that the surgical creation of a lesion in part of the dACC can be used as a treatment for people suffering from chronic pain, thus showing the dACC’s role in physical pain. People treated in this manner can locate the pain sensation, but leaves them unbothered by the feeling of pain.
Despite rejection not having the same risk as it did about a hundred thousand years ago, our strong response to rejection continues even today. It explains why we describe our feelings as being ‘hurt’, or our heart being ‘broken’, as well as the rampant fear of public speaking. Being viewed negatively by our peers literally hurts us. So go easy on your fellow human beings as well as yourself, we’re a tad fragile!