The science of emotional pain

16 May, 2013

While reading an article called The Science of Loneliness, I found this interesting passage:

Functional magnetic resonance imaging scans showed that the experience of being snubbed lit up a part of the subjects’ brains (the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex) that also lights up when the body feels physical pain.

I asked Eisenberger why, if the same part of our brain processes social insult and bodily injury, we don’t confuse the two. She explained that physical harm simultaneously lights up another neural region as well, one whose job is to locate the ache—on an arm or leg, inside the body, and so on. What the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex registers is the emotional fact that pain is distressing, be it social or physical. She calls this the “affective component” of pain. In operations performed to relieve chronic pain, doctors have lesioned, or disabled, the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex. After the surgery, the patients report that they can still sense where the trouble comes from, but, they add, it just doesn’t bother them anymore.

What this means is that emotional pain isn’t a metaphorical, “all in your head” thing. It is literal pain, the difference from physical pain being that it is not located at a specific site in the body. From this we can see why people use alcohol and opiates to cope with emotional distress – they function as literal and functional anaesthetics. Which puts the matter of “substance abuse” in a different perspective. You don’t tell someone with a broken leg that their need for painkillers is a character flaw, do you?

(I must advise those tempted to self-medicate for anxiety that taking large amounts of paracetamol will cause liver damage.)

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2 Responses to “The science of emotional pain”


  1. Not sure if you discussed this with me, but I have had the info from a couple of different quarters. When I think back to my adolescence… gah. If only I’d known then… Meep.


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