New research from the International School for advanced Studies of Trieste in Italy (SISSA) shows that being socially excluded, or seeing a friend in distress is physically painful.
Published in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, the researchers conducted a set of experiments on a group of participants to investigate the association between social and physical pain by measuring brain activity using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).
In one of the experiments, the participants played a game where they tossed a ball to each other, but one of the players was intentionally excluded by the others. Either a player was excluded his or herself, or a friend was excluded to generate a condition of social pain.
In another experiment, a participant or friend of a participant received a mildly painful stimulus. Each participant witnessed their friend's experience and prompted the condition of physical pain.
When comparing the results, the researchers found that both conditions activated a region in the brain linked to sensory processing of physical pain called the posterior insular cortex. This region of the brain was also activated whether a person experienced the social or physical pain conditions themselves, or observed a friend suffering both conditions.
"Our data showed in conditions of social pain, there is activation of an area traditionally associated with the sensory processing of physical pain, the posterior insular cortex," study author Giorgia Silani said in a statement. "This occurred both when the pain was experienced in first person and when the subject experienced it vicariously."
The researchers explain that the person’s ultimate goal is to “prioritize escape, recovery and healing. This is why people feel social pain and are able to empathize when others experience it.