Would you believe me if I said that your body treats social pain just as seriously as physical pain? By the time we’re done here you will.
A functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) device is a machine that can scan your brain to see what parts are active at the time of the scan. It’s functional because you can scan the brain while you do stuff. This way we can see how your brain lights up to identify patterns and thus potentially how the brain works. So, for instance, here’s a model of a woman’s brain during orgasm (it lights up like crazy, unsurprisingly). Says something about our society that I couldn’t find a blokes brain during orgasm…
Anyway. If you hurt someone during an fMRI scan, you brain lights up in the rough shape of a pattern we now know is your brain responding to pain. Doesn’t matter what kind of pain; heat or cold, a prick on the finger, a chemical. It’ll activate in roughly the same way quite reliably.
Our brains panic when we’re in pain
The parts of the brain that light up are the parts responsible for our motor reflexes (like, ‘jerk away, NOW!’) and other parts that are associated with talking to other parts of our body. A lot of it appears to be related to the areas of our mind that light up when something important is happening, the emotional parts of our brain like the amygdala and the surrounding limbic system. Then the part of our brain that assesses our emotions for their validity kicks in, the anterior cingulate cortex. Essentially our brain is working hard to let us know that it doesn’t like what’s going on and encouraging you to do something about it (emotions are motivating behaviours, you see).
Our brains equate pain and exclusion
So, let’s say you put someone in an fMRI machine and you chat to them. You and a few of your confederate friends. You’re gonna do something mean though. After striking up a conversation that everyone is into, you’re going to stop talking to the person in the fMRI. You might even leave the room. You’re going to social exclude them. When you do that, you find something very interesting. You find that their brain lights up just like that time they went in for that pain study.
The brain treats rejection like actual pain. Still don’t believe me? What about the fact that taking pain meds helps alleviate that crushing feeling you get in your chest? Heartbreak, homesickness, they feel like real and physical ailments for a reason. Social exclusion represents just as big a threat to us as physical pain. It’s why approach anxiety is a thing. There are entire sub-clinical and clinical disorders that arise because of this.
Yep, our body treats social pain just like physical pain and it can hurt just as much.
“The marks humans leave are too often scars” – John Green, A Fault in our Stars
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