| Does rejection actually hurt?

A couple of months ago, I met a girl in a bar. She was attractive, smart, and, importantly, shorter than me. After we exchanged some witty banter, I was smitten. I suggested we go out, my stomach aflutter when she agreed and gave me her number. We made plans to go to an art gallery the following weekend.

The afternoon of the date arrived, and I was, so to speak, on – she laughed at my jokes, I made insightful comments about modern art, and, in my favourite pair of skinny jeans, I looked great. By the end of the date, though, I had started to develop a sinking feeling. The usual signs of romantic interest – suggestive glances, unnecessary body contact, sloppy make-outs – were missing, and I went home that evening unsure if we’d go out again.

And then, two days later, while sitting in a coffee shop working on a piece for The Daily, she texted me. My heart soared – that is, until I actually read her text and realized that it made little sense. It turned out she had confused my number with that of another “Dan”; she had never meant to text me. Ouch. Leaving half an Americano on the table and my column for the week unfinished, I sulked home feeling like I’d been punched in the gut, my stomach firmly lodged in my throat.

Rejection. Like everyone, I’ve experienced it and I’ve even dished it out (sorry, Caroline from third year…). We say that it hurts, but does it actually hurt – does the brain experience the emotional pain of rejection in the same way that it experiences physical pain? Six years ago, neuroscientists working at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) decided to find out.

To simulate rejection in the lab, the UCLA scientists had test subjects play a game of virtual ball toss. While having their brains scanned and looking at a computer screen, a test subject had to pass a blip on the screen – the “ball” – to one of two characters also on the display. Crucially, the subject was told that the actions of the characters – whether they passed the ball back to the subject, or between themselves – were controlled by two other test subjects in a separate room, also having their brains scanned.

In reality, though, there were no other test subjects. A computer controlled the other characters, and after a few minutes of playing fairly, it abruptly stopped passing the ball back to the subject. The subject was then forced to sit and watch the characters on the display gleefully pass the ball between themselves without ever passing it back – in other words, laboratory-style rejection.

When the game made subjects feel rejected, the scanner found that neurons in an area of the brain known as the anterior cingulate cortex, or ACG, fired.

If you could push your hands through the middle top of your skull, peeling apart the two lobes of your brain, a bulbous structure, almost in the middle of your head, would pop out; that would be the ACG.

The ACG plays a role in processing emotion and empathy and, as a 1998 study confirmed in dramatic fashion by shooting lasers at subjects, it also fires neurons when you experience physical pain. The UCLA scientists concluded that, from the brain’s standpoint, there is little difference between physical pain and emotional pain.

If the brain doesn’t distinguish between physical pain and emotional pain, then those of us who have a high tolerance for one must also have a high tolerance for the other. So, before I go on my next date, perhaps all I need are a few boxing lessons.

You can email Daniel Lametti at thesplitbrain@mcgilldaily.com. You might never hear back from him though, so prepare yourself now for the pain.


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