How the Biology of Emotion Plays a Role in Our Judgement and Decision-Making:
Part 3: Emotional Protection
As a species, all humans are inherently social. We long for a sense of connection with those who surround us. When we make physical contact with other humans, our brain releases opioids; a brain chemical that is associated with the relief of psychological pain. As Jaak Panskepp shared in his TED Talk about the science of emotions, the connection we feel with other people can be considered “partially addicting”. This is because when we feel connected and cared for, it’s as if we develop a sense of safety and are comforted by the presence of the other person (Panskepp, 2014). While this can be a heartwarming part of the human experience, there is also another side of the coin. Unfortunately, we will all experience social rejection at some point in our lives; and the pain associated with social rejection can stay with us for years.
Matthew Liebermann shared research findings that bring important insight into the physiology of social pain. Liebermann shares that in the study, participants were connected to MRI scanners and asked to play a virtual ball-tossing game with two other people. At some point throughout the game, two of the players would toss the ball back and forth between each other, and never include the third person in the game for the remainder of the game. Interestingly, the person who experienced this social rejection showed a physiological phenomenon in their brain that is similar to what is experienced when a person feels physical pain, such as a strained muscle (Liebermann, 2013).
This means that when a person experiences social rejection or loneliness, the parietal lobe and the dorsal raphe nucleus are affected, as found in a study done on mice who were put in isolation for an extended period of time before being introduced to a new mouse. When compared to a group of mice that have been living together, the mouse who lived in isolation appeared to be more interested in interacting with the new mouse. This behavior was explained by showing a sense of hyperactivity in the regions of the parietal lobe and the dorsal raphe nucleus when the mouse was presented with another mouse to interact with. The findings of this study have indicated that the parietal lobe and the dorsal raphe nucleus can provide motivation for us to interact with others in a way of escaping the emotional pain caused by social isolation (Blanco-Suarez, 2017).
Humans are similar to mice in the way that we long for connection, and when put into isolation, we experience an increased need for social interaction, a sense of connection with another human. This has become evident throughout the COVID-19 Pandemic, many people have experienced an increase of loneliness. In a recent publication for TIME Magazine, it was reported that in a study conducted by SocialPro, at least 20% of survey respondents between the ages of 18 and 75 have reported feeling an increased sense of loneliness throughout the social distancing precautions taken in response to the COVID-19 Pandemic (Ducharme, 2020).
Because we are so effected by social connection and isolation, chronic social pain can run the risk of leading us to portray natural responses that serve to protect us from future psychological pain. Defense mechanisms such as jumping into the “flight” response can protect us when we are put in a situation when we feel as though we will be rejected socially. People who experience chronic loneliness due to social rejection may develop mental health concerns such as anxiety, depression, and even Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, all mental health conditions that can lead to unhealthy coping mechanisms if not treated appropriately.
When discussing the effects that these psychological conditions can have on our decision-making with a mental health counselor I visit regularly, I learned about the ways that long-lasting anxiety can manifest in daily experiences. The counselor I spoke to shared with me her experience of struggling to talk to new groups of people as a result of anxiety she felt during an experience she had years ago when she was consistently rejected by her group of friends. To this day, she finds herself experiencing the reactions of the Sympathetic Nervous System when she visits a new group of friends for fear that she will be rejected once again. This emotional experience has led her to experience difficulty appropriately judging the way others interact with her and has at times caused the “flight” response.
This is a common experience that people may have. Fortunately, there are growing numbers of resources that can help a person to cope with emotional distress such as social rejection and loneliness and assist a person in continuing to thrive in their daily lives the way that they wish to. Throughout the COVID-19 Pandemic, online mental health services such as BetterHelp and TalkSpace allow for access to education in coping mechanisms that can assist in emotional health.
Panskepp (2014) “The Science of Emotions: Jaak Panskepp at TEDx Rainier” TED Talks
Kanai, et. al. (2012) “Brain Structures Links Loneliness to Social Perception”, Science Direct, p. 1975–1979
Blanco-Suarez (2017) “The Neuroscience of Loneliness” Psychology Today
Matthews, et. al. (2018) “Lonely Young Adults in Modern Britain: Findings from an Epidemiological Cohort Study” Cambridge University Press
Ducharme (2020) “COVID-19 is Making America’s Loneliness Epidemic Worse” TIME
Leary (2011) “Responses to Social Exclusion: Social Anxiety, Loneliness, Depression and Low Self-Esteem” Guilford Press Periodicals