The Shared Roots of Mental and Physical Pain
“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.”
The old adage is being called into question by new research from UCLA: Dr. Naomi Eisenberger is finding that social rejection and physical pain are intrinsically linked in the brain, such that the former can impact the latter. Luckily, it’s possible that brain training can help improve emotional well-being.
How social rejection might affect physical pain
In an experiment published in the 2006 issue of the journal Pain, Eisenberger used 75 subjects to explore perceptions of physical pain in the context of social situations.
First, researchers identified each person’s unique pain threshold by transmitting varying levels of heat to the forearm. Subjects rated the pain level of each stimulus until they reached “very unpleasant.” This provided a baseline for personal thresholds of physical pain in normal situations.
Subjects then took part in a ball-tossing game involving three characters on a computer screen. One character represented the subject; researchers told everyone that the other two characters were played by real people (though the computer actually controlled everything). The subject was either socially included (the ball was regularly tossed to the subject) or not included (the ball was not tossed to the subject). In the last 30 seconds of the game, a new heat stimulus was applied and subjects rated its pain level.
Unsurprisingly, the non-included group reported 67% more social distress. More surprisingly, the same people who reported great social distress due to the game also reported higher pain ratings (based on threshold) at the end of the game—showing a link between social and physical pain.
Pain processing in the brain
Many fMRI studies have confirmed that emotional and physical pain both activate the brain’s dorsal anterior cingulate cortex. Still other studies note that people who suffer from physical conditions such as chronic pain are also more likely to have emotional anxiety and feel social rejection more deeply.
In other words, emotional health contributes in many ways to living a full life. Luckily, scientists have already found indications that you can train and control your emotions.
Many Lumosity members self-report increased confidence and happier lives as a result of training. And in 2011, Berkeley professor Anett Gyurak successfully used Lumosity training (among other things) to decrease anxiety and increase beneficial emotional processing in a group of test subjects. The subjects included people with depression and anxiety disorder, but they also included normal, healthy adults.
Gyurak’s research suggests that better emotional control is something everyone can strive towards, even if you’re in perfect health. Some of the cognitive processes involved in emotional well-being—such as executive control, which helps us plan rationally and control impulses—can also transfer to intellectual abilities that you rely on at work and in school.