The Neuroscience of Emotional Pain, and the Necessity of Perceived Control

Two nights ago, I read what I believe to be the most personally relevant and  meaningful article I’ve come in contact with in nearly a year. I do not say this lightly,  because I remember the last moment in time I felt this way. I read Halden’s post  entitled Bonhoeffer and the Theology of Romantic Love  not when it was originally  posted in 2008, but a couple of days after New Year’s Day, 2011. It came at the  perfect time-as does the one I’ve just read-because it is about love and loss; rejection and isolation. What  isn’t, after all? Love and death are the strongest of motivators and ordeals, and death  would seem sterile and void of strife were it not for love.

Unfortunately, great as the ups may be, so great are the downs. Having a fair bit of  recent exposure to both tribulations, I would like to share some insight I’ve found in  direct correlation to the more neuroscientific side of things.

At UCLA in 2003, a study was done explicitly on the neural correlates of social  rejection entitled Does Rejection Hurt? An fMRI Study of Social Exclusion. Obviously,  anyone with access to the internet and a free subscription to a science mag online  could tell you that these have been done before; it’s nothing new to observe the psychological underpinnings of pain when a child is picked last (or not at all) for a game of sport after school. It is new information to me, however, that the physiological aspects in the pain of rejection have now proven quite similar to any other type of physical pain: when we lose someone we love, for whatever reason it may be, it literally hurts. The abstract of this article below may better explain the premise:

A neuroimaging study examined the neural correlates of social exclusion and tested the hypothesis that the brain bases of social pain are similar to those of physical pain. Participants were scanned while playing a virtual ball-tossing game in which they were ultimately excluded. Paralleling results from physical pain studies, the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) was more active during exclusion than during inclusion and correlated positively with self-reported distress. Right ventral prefrontal cortex (RVPFC) was active during exclusion and correlated negatively with self-reported distress. ACC changes mediated the RVPFC-distress correlation, suggesting that RVPFC regulates the distress of social exclusion by disrupting ACC activity.[1]

In the aforementioned, we see that this test was administered to children whilst playing in a ‘virtual ball tossing game’ where they were eventually excluded. If the ACC activity is ‘disrupted’ by such a common and (what many might view as childish experience) what can we say of the potential for anguish of those who lose a spouse? A parent? A child? Of those not only excluded, but abandoned? This brings me to the article in question. Though I’ve found the writing and vocal stylings to stem from a slightly more youthful (and charmingly so!) perspective than I’ve become accustomed in my daily journal fix, pain is pain is pain. We don’t need sappy (and wonderful) song lyrics from Blindside  to tell us that ultimately, at the end of the day, we’re in this together. All of us are searching for an open arm. I could go on forever in tangent about why I can’t wrap my head around referring to God as ‘big other’ or humanity as at last to be but cold, selfish and detached. There is something else at work here, when one experiences pain beyond a certain magnitude. Christie Wilcox does a fine job of breaking this process down for us:

 Evolutionary biologists would say that it’s not surprising that our emotions have hijacked the pain system. As social creatures, mammals are dependent from birth upon others. We must forge and maintain relationships to survive and pass on our genes. Pain is a strong motivator; it is the primary way for our bodies tell us that something is wrong and needs to be fixed. Our intense aversion to pain causes us to instantly change behavior to ensure we don’t hurt anymore. Since the need to maintain social bonds is crucial to mammalian survival, experiencing pain when they are threatened is an adaptive way to prevent the potential danger of being alone.

Christie goes on to state the unfortunate obvious: sometimes understanding the evolutionary biology or even rationale behind it all is simply not enough. We may now see the possibly the main hook for me in her article: she turns to music. We all know the studies on how exercise/having sex/listening to music/interacting with art, etc. are proven to release dopamine, arousing feelings of happiness and positive valence. The thing that really caught my attention is something I’m shocked I had not let sink in previously: music stimulates and creates a feeling of control. I cannot begin to list the litany of mental illnesses that include negative outcomes which seemingly stem directly from a perceived lack of impulse control, but just for effect, I will name a few:

A)    ASD (Autism, Asperger’s)

B)    Attention Deficit Disorder

C)    Manic Depression

D)    Paranoid Schizophrenia

E)    Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

F)     Borderline Personality Disorder

G)    The paraphilias (exhibitionism and pedophilia)

H)    Various disorders advocating self-harming behaviors

The list plainly goes on and on. From the little I’ve observed in various interpersonal encounters in various stages of life, very few of us enjoy a major lack of control; those suffering from preconceived abandonment/loss apprehensions, even less. Here we have the ultimate tie-in that I seem to be making quite a lot lately: Chalk one more up for music psychology. I would be telling a blatant untruth if I refrained from admitting I too have found listening to music to be all of the above: exhilarating, liberating, calming, but more importantly creating the massive sensation of immediate…not necessarily peace, or ease, but control.

As I draw near to the day when I must nail down my precise research proposal for graduate school, I’ll again briefly show how this relates to what I want to do, and feel can be done. In that exact moment of conflict (commonly the amygdale hijack) our mental, emotional and physical actions are crucial. Countless sufferers of self-destructive behaviors including those who engage in self-inflicted physical pain, sexual promiscuity, domestic violence, and kleptomania suffer from a perceived lack of control-and will do anything to reclaim it. If one is in control, there is a (even if false) sense that everything will be okay; that everything’s not lost. I very simply believe that like many other (‘healthy’) activities that people engage in, music can be an instantaneous way for the patient to achieve, even if for a moment, control. 

I certainly here digress, but will continue this thought process further in future posts.


[1] Science 10 October 2003:
Vol. 302 no. 5643 pp. 290-292
DOI: 10.1126/science.1089134

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2 thoughts on “The Neuroscience of Emotional Pain, and the Necessity of Perceived Control

  1. This is fascinating. I wonder how far back that sense of control in music goes, before there were recording devises and you had to go to concerts, or have a friend who played music, or heard a bard, etc. Or the effects of angry/angsty music that can crop up in teenage listeners.

    I wonder if you could contrast this with how the music controls people. For instance, with upbeat dance music where you seem almost out of control of your body and it just wants to move with the rhythm. So you have the beat that almost forces you to move (sometimes you have to consciously choose not to move), or a catchy/trendy song that gets stuck in your head and suddenly you don’t seem in complete control of your thoughts because that piece of music has just wormed its way into your consciousness (unconsciousness?).

  2. Abi,

    That’s a fantastic point, actually. I’ve no idea, but I do love the story of the bible when Saul is tormented and David soothes him with music…bit of music therapy in action 🙂

    And yes, it totally and completely works both ways. I 100% agree with it. I’ve seen at times music act in similar ways as alcohol-a justification for one’s actions and minor loss of judgement. A couple of examples would be soldiers playing Drowning Pool’s ‘Let The Bodies Hit The Floor’ in effort to desensitize them from needless killing, or simply being in a concert and being moved to tears.

    Earworms are interesting as well, there’s quite a lot of scholarly research and funding in the study right now at Goldsmiths MMB programme (which is one of my top choices) I believe it’s unconscious.

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