Why it Hurts to be Left Out: The Neurocognitive Overlap Between Physical and Social Pain
The brain processes physical pain and social pain similarly.
“Sticks and stones may break your bones, but words will never hurt you.” I’m guessing this is a familiar adage to most. Growing up, I recall hearing this many times. I also remember believing that this was not true. I saw kids cry when others called them names. I saw kids get angry and look sad when being teased and excluded. It seemed to me that these words hurt as much, if not more, than physical pain.
My intuition was affirmed while attending a conference led by Amy Banks of the International Center for Growth in Connection . My ears perked up as she described the work of Naomi Eisenberger and Matthew Lieberman. In their Social Cognitive Neuroscience lab at the University of California, Los Angeles, Eisenberger and Lieberman conducted extensive research entitled, “Why it Hurts to Be Left Out: The Neurocognitive Overlap Between Physical and Social Pain.” Their theory, Social Pain/Physical Pain Overlap Theory or SPOT, proposes no distinction in the brain between physical and social pain. They write that “accumulating evidence is revealing that physical and social pain are similar in experience, function, and underlying neural structure.” In other words, the brain processes physical pain and social pain similarly.
Being socially excluded, taunted, or teased hurts in the exact same way as being punched in the stomach. When I mention this research to people, they are at first surprised. But then, as though their own intuition was affirmed, they acknowledge its truth. Eisenberger and Lieberman end their paper wondering about techniques that may be developed for managing and minimizing social pain. Relational Cultural Theory lends itself to both individuals and the societies in which they live towards developing growth fostering relationships, which in turn can enhance relational connection and minimize social pain.