Social rejection really does feel like a kick in the balls: study


It turns out that when someone turns you down for a date, it’s scientifically apt to compare the pain of that rejection to a kick in the balls. At least as far as your brain reacts.

According to data in a new study out of the University of Michigan, the brain eases the pain of social rejection just as though the pain was from an actual, physical injury.

As is standard procedure when looking at what our brains are up to, subjects in the Michigan study were stuck into PET scans to see how their brains lit up in response to a particular input. In this case, subjects were told someone they had ranked attractive, as one might on a dating website, didn’t reciprocate. Hello, middle school!

Upon learning this unfortunate news, people’s brains lit up all over the opioid sections, which means they were pumping out painkillers to the body. (Natural, body-made painkillers are in the same chemical family as opium, heroin and morphine, which is why those drugs make people feel so good.)

Now, for those of us with naturally high anxiety levels, this whole experience ends up feeling pretty awful. So awful, in fact, that we may avoid the possibility of rejection altogether. Obviously, though, not everyone does that. So why do people keep setting themselves up for emotional ball-kicks?

According the the study’s lead researcher, Dr. David Hsu, the more socially resilient among the study’s participants “tended to be capable of more opioid release during social rejection, especially in the amygdala,” meaning that they feel less pain and their brains provide more painkillers. This is also the first time researchers have been able to pinpoint where opioids are being triggered in the human brain.

What does this mean for us? That’s not clear yet, but the results could point to some treatments for anxiety and depression, or help researchers better understand addiction.

[image via Matthew Stefanson]