Anyone who has survived the cliques and unrequited crushes of adolescence can tell you that social rejection hurts, in its own special, horrible way. Most of us were content just to figure out ways to self-medicate: writing in a journal, scripting elaborate revenge fantasies, listening to Depeche Mode. Other brave souls, however, have dedicated themselves to studying the emotion. When we feel the sting of rejection, what exactly is happening in our brains?
The latest piece of research from the front lines of rejectionology offers an intriguing answer: Being ostracized or spurned is just like slamming your hand in a door. To the brain, pain is pain, whether it’s social or physical. And when someone makes us feel bad, the brain responds the same way it does when someone literally punches us in the face—it floods our system with natural painkillers. And that, more than the Depeche Mode, is what starts to make us feel better.
The study, published in August in Molecular Psychiatry, was set up to simulate something a growing number of people are familiar with: online dating. Participants in the study picked out 40 online profiles, from a list of 500, of people they were interested in. They were then placed in a positron emission tomography scanner and told that the people they were interested in either were or were not interested in them. In other words, they had their brains scanned while experiencing acceptance or rejection. The PET scans showed a spike in the activation of the brain’s opioid receptors among the rejected.
According to David Hsu, a neuroscientist at the University of Michigan and one of the study’s authors, the result helps fill out our understanding of the mental mechanisms that underlie social emotions. “If you think about the stressors in your daily life,” he says, “most likely they have some social component to them: a divorce, a romantic breakup, the loss of a loved one—they all have a social component, and I think people are sort of missing the importance of some of these stressors.”
If the study holds up, it means “dulling the pain” of a broken heart with a drug such as heroin or morphine isn’t just a metaphor; it’s actually mimicking the body’s own rejection-management system. The dating study was small, with only 18 subjects (doing and analyzing the PET scans for each subject, Hsu says, cost $5,000), but it builds on other work that shows the surprising extent to which physical and social pain use the same mental machinery—a 2010 study showed that taking Tylenol mitigates feelings of social rejection.
Hsu cautions that we shouldn’t rush to the medicine chest to mend our broken hearts, though. Feelings of rejection, he points out, have a purpose. “Feeling socially rejected can actually be adaptive,” he says. “If you imagine yourself being numb to any kind of social feedback, you miss cues.” You risk really alienating yourself. Like physical pain, feeling rejected is an unpleasant experience meant to protect us from doing permanent damage to ourselves.
Bennett is a staff writer for Bloomberg Businessweek in New York.