The same parts of our brain that are activated in response to physical pain are also activated when we experience social pain, such as rejection, new research suggests.
Plus, the Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience study shows that we experience this brain activation when we are not the ones actually experiencing the social pain, and are instead watching someone else experience it.
"Our findings lend support to the theoretical model of empathy that explains involvement in other people's emotions by the fact that our representation is based on the representation of our own emotional experience in similar conditions," study researcher Giorgia Silani, of the International School for Advanced Studies of Trieste, said in a statement.
For the study, researchers had study participants engage in several experiments where they had to toss a ball in a simulation. The researchers induced social pain by purposefully excluding one of the players; the participants were either the one excluded, or they watched an assigned peer be excluded. They then conducted experiments where physical pain was induced; just like in the first series of experiments, the participants were either the ones experiencing the pain, or they were watching a peer experience the pain.
The researchers found that the posterior insular cortex and secondary somatosensory cortex of the brain were activated during the social exclusion, just as they were during the physical pain. The posterior insular cortex is "traditionally associated with the sensory processing of physical pain," Silani said in the statement.
Plus, researchers found that the "pattern of activation not only holds for directly experienced social pain, but also during empathy for social pain," the study said.
Previously, a study in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences showed that social rejection elicited a similar brain response to physical pain, as shown by fMRI scans.
It's a good thing our brain has a way of dealing with social pain -- a 2013 study in the journal Molecular Psychiatry showed that the brain releases opioids (which are released in response to physical pain) in response to social rejection, too.