The Neuroscience of Rejection and Loss
A bit of fragrance always clings to the hand that gives roses.
Most of us recoil at the thought of hurting another person physically. Many of us even experience a visceral reaction when we see someone twist an ankle or smash a finger. For those with extreme empathy, a condition called mirror-touch synesthesia, it’s possible to feel another person’s physical pain exactly as it’s experienced by the person who is injured.
But what happens when you think of hurting another person emotionally or when we see emotional pain inflicted upon someone else? Do we react in the same way? Maybe we should.
Many studies have found that social pain the kind caused by rejection or loss activates the brain circuits related to physical pain. The experiments typically expose test subjects to social exclusion (often playing a virtual ball-tossing game in which they are eventually excluded) while monitoring the brain with fMRI scans. During these social exclusion studies, neuroscientists have found reactions of the posterior insular cortex to be similar to responses of the sensory processing of physical pain.
These studies are a good reminder to be mindful of our interactions with others. While rejection, death and broken hearts are a normal part of life, we do have the ability to cause real emotional pain, either intentionally or inadvertently. We generally avoid causing physical pain to anyone. Why would we act any differently in our social interactions? By communicating mindfully (and without judgment), we are more likely to avoid conversations we later regret or interactions that hurt others needlessly.