Emerging evidence suggests that certain brain areas involved in processing physical pain may also play a role in regulating pain from interpersonal rejection or loss.
In a new study, researchers wanted to learn if altering brain activity in these areas could actually change how people experience social pain.
Paolo Riva, Ph.D., of the University of Milano-Bicocca and colleagues examined if activity in the right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex (rVLPFC) — a brain region involved in the regulation of physical pain and negative expressions of emotion — influenced the feelings and perceptions of social pain.
In the study, researchers recruited 79 university students to take part in a “mental visualization exercise.”
Experimenters used a constant-current regulator to stimulate the brain the rVLPFC area. All of the participants were told that they would receive stimulation for 15 minutes but only half of the participants actually received the current.
Five minutes before the end of 15-minute stimulation session, the students played a virtual ball-tossing game called Cyberball. The students were told that they were playing with two other players and that the three of them would take turns throwing the ball to each other.
In actuality, a computer program controlled the game. Some of the participants were excluded, receiving the ball only twice and then never again, while other participants received the ball about one-third of the time.
Students were then asked to report the percentage of throws they thought they received. They were then asked to rate the unpleasantness of the pain they felt and the hurt feelings they experienced during the game.
Riva and colleagues found that, as predicted, the participants who were socially excluded reported that they received less attention than participants who were included. Moreover, they rated the game as more unpleasant and reported more hurt feelings.
However, the hurt feelings and negative connotations were reduced for participants who received stimulation over the rVLPFC. Specifically, socially excluded participants who received the actual current experienced less unpleasantness and less hurt feelings than the participants who believed they were receiving the current.
In both cases participants knew they were being excluded, but they appeared relatively unbothered by it if they received stimulation.
“Few studies have examined how the pain of social exclusion can be alleviated. Our results offer the first evidence that stimulation over the rVLPFC reduces the painful effects of social exclusion,” Riva and colleagues concluded.
Who knows, perhaps someday we will be able to plug into a painless electrical brain stimulator to whisk away our relationship heartaches.
Their findings are published in Psychological Science.