The Physical Pain of Social Isolation: Social Pain Overlap Theory

by | Jan 4, 2023 | Blog

Affiliation and the dACC

When developing CalmConnect we contacted more than a hundred people: young, old, black, white, Asian, Hispanic… We asked them to come in and showed them a few movements. Some of them had great difficulty; almost no one moved with the beat. But they were real people. The only thing we did was to tell them something about the people who would be using the program – that things might be hard, and they might be having a bad day. We asked them to picture those people, look at them, connect with them, and send them their love.

We began to test the program. An elderly woman started to rock back and forth in time to the music as she watched the people on the screen. She began to cry and hug herself when she saw a young boy point to her and smile. A middle school boy with severe autism and limited speech imitated an adolescent boy on the screen. He watched as the boy completed his final movement and spontaneously smiled with a big, “thumbs up.” The boy with autism stopped abruptly, stood up tall, laughed, and said, “I think he likes me!”

The dorsal anterior cingulate cortex is a small strip of the brain located deep within the frontal cortex and is part of the complex alarm system known primarily for picking up the distress of physical pain.

Surprisingly, the dACC also lights up in response to social pain and isolation, even to being simply ‘left out’ of a game. (Lieberman, M., Eisenberger, N., 2008)

The more emotionally distressing the social pain or isolation is to someone, the more the dACC is activated. To our brains, the pain of being socially isolated is the same as the pain from a physical injury or illness. That the dACC reacts so strongly to both physical pain and social pain is a measure of how important it is to be included/accepted, and how damaging it is to feel left out.

In his book, “Love and Survival: The Scientific Basis for the Healing Power of Intimacy,” pioneering cardiologist Dean Ornish confirms that psychological and social variables are better predictors of late-life well-being than medical ones. He describes the results of several studies, including this one in North Carolina, which examined the impact of social support on older men and women (331 men and women, above the age of 64). After controlling for risk factors including age, sex, physical health, socioeconomic status, smoking, etc., the results showed that those with perceived impaired social support had a 340 percent higher rate of premature death than those who felt that their social support was good.

Repeated social exclusion draws on painful experiences as a model for future social interactions and relationships. The dACC becomes more sensitized and reactive as the person anticipates more exclusion and then interprets each social encounter according to that expectation. The more times that someone is left out or rejected, the more the experience of being left out is knitted into neural pathways.

A competitive, judgmental, unaccepting environment increases the reactivity of the dACC, creating and reinforcing exclusion. An overactive dACC is the result and the cause of social exclusion.

In a world that isolates many adults struggling with various challenges, the dozens of people onscreen in CalmConnect are always compassionate and safe. Countless teachers and therapists have told us that for some of their students and clients, the people that they see on CalmConnect each day are often the only people who look at them with unconditional acceptance, making absolutely no requests or demands. CalmConnect provides a significant emotional and global connection through a varied group of people of all ages, helping others to connect with the real world.

Loneliness is painful. Professor Robert Waldinger, Director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, one of the world’s longest studies of adult life, wrote that “loneliness kills. It’s as powerful as smoking or alcoholism.”