A study caught my eye this week that underscores the powerful connection between us. It concerned the emotional pain of rejection, and social psychologists from the University of Michigan made an extraordinary discovery: the pain of rejection is not simply an emotional pain, but an actual physical hurt.
In the study, 40 volunteers who’d recently suffered an unwanted break-up were shown photos of their ex-lovers while they were scanned by functional magnetic resonance imaging. Brain activity was discovered to occur in the same regions that get activated when people suffer a physical pain, such as getting punched or holding a hot object.
The 40 volunteers were instructed to study a photo of their ex and to concentrate on how it felt during the split.
The Michigan scientists then scanned the volunteers after attaching a thermal device to their arms, which was turned up from warm to painfully hot— akin to the pain of holding a hot cup of coffee.
Both situations elicited activity in the brain region associated with pain sensations. The same areas of the brain – the secondary somatosensory cortex and dorsal posterior insula — were involved in the emotional as well as physical pain.
Up to now, neuroscientists have believed that the section of the brain involved with the pain of emotion only overlapped that brain region involved with the emotional experience of pain.
“These results give new meaning to the idea that rejection ‘hurts’,” the scientists wrote.
The researchers also believe that intense rejection, as occurs during a breakup with a lover, can lead to chronically painful conditions, such as fibromyalgia. They are also consistent with the idea of ‘embodiment’ – that physical sensations are an integral part of the experience of emotion.
This latest evidence provides more information about the intrinsic connection we feel with others. We not only mimic others’ emotions, we also feel them deep within our bodies. We are so attuned to the emotional landscape surrounding us that a positive or negative environment affects our bodies and their ability to function.
Natural killer cells – the immune system’s front line of defense against cancer and many viruses — are profoundly reactive to stress in our lives, particularly social stressors. Large dips in NK cell numbers and activities have been observed during arguments or even minor conflict.
The pain of arguing
A study of couples showed that the stress of reliving an argument delays wound healing by at least a day. In an ingenious study by Ohio State University College of Medicine, the researchers gathered together 42 married couples and inflicted small wounds with a tiny puncture device on one partner of each pair. During the first sessions, the partners held a conflict-free, constructive discussion and the wound healing was carefully timed.
Several months later, the researchers repeated the injury, but this time allowed the partners to raise an ongoing contentious issue, such as money or in-laws. This time, the wounds took a day longer to heal. Among the more hostile couples, the wounds healed at only 60 per cent the rate of the more compatible pairs.
Examination of the fluids in the wounds found different levels of a chemical called interleukin-6 (IL-6), a cytokine and key chemical in the immune system. Among the hostile couples, the levels of interleukin-6 were too low initially and then too high immediately after an argument, suggesting that their immune systems had been overwhelmed.
Emotion and disease
In fact, social stress has been shown to affect the functioning of the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal gland axis — one of the chief regulators of the body’s ability to fight off disease. Psychologist David Spiegel and his colleagues have found a link between marital discord and negative effects on the cortisol rhythms of the body, which are now considered a risk factor for early cancer mortality.
This type of visceral connection between us – the fact that we ‘feel’ emotions in our bodies – is another instance of nature’s design to reinforce the connection between us. Whether we wish to be or not, we are constantly attuned to the emotional landscape around us.
Here’s a little preview of me speaking to just this point from my new book THE BOND: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=63SIr33czTA&feature=player_detailpage