Exclusion and the brain

We’ve all had the feeling of being excluded, whether as a child or an adult. Feelings of sadness and hurt overcome me when I’ve been left out of a situation, and questions run through my mind as I try to figure out what caused the ostracism. According to an article in the January/February issue of Scientific American Mind by Kipling D. Williams, a professor of psychological sciences, the brain registers ostracism as physical pain [subscription required].

Ostracism is when you are excluded from a situation, whether verbally or physically. In Williams’ article, he details how he and his colleagues created a computer game called “Cyberball,” where participants toss a virtual ball via the computer to other animated characters on the screen. The participant is under the impression that the animated characters are actual people playing on the computer. Sometimes the player doesn’t get the ball tossed their way, and within a few minutes, he or she has been excluded and feels low levels of belonging to groups, lack of control, and diminished self-esteem.

The study showed that regardless of whether the exclusion is in person or virtual it elicits an emotional reaction. One of Williams’ studies in 2003 showed that ostracized people had more activity in the dorsal anterior cingulated cortex, which is a portion of the brain associated with emotion. A 2010 study showed that pain killers can help ease the pain of emotion, the same way they do with physical pain.

Williams presented some facts about ostracism:

  • “Even brief episodes of ostracism involving strangers or people we dislike activate the brain’s pain centers, incite sadness and anger, increase stress, lower self-esteem and rob us of a sense of control.
  • We all feel the pain of ostracism about equally, no matter how tough or sensitive we are. Personality traits do, however, influence how well we cope.
  • Detecting ostracism quickly increases the likelihood that an individual can respond in such a way as to stay in a group and, literally or figuratively, survive the ordeal.”

We all feel hurt and pain caused by exclusion. When it happens to me, I usually reflect on why I was ostracized and what I could have done differently. Others take the hurt and pain and act aggressively. I think the best thing to do is to know that it’s going to happen many times in your life! It doesn’t take away the sting, but knowing your self-worth and value will make it better and help you to cope.

–Blayne Jeffries

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