Giorgia Silani, Giovanni Novembre and Marco Zanon of the International School for Advanced Studies of Trieste in Italy said social pain activates some brain circuits of physical pain whether people feel it personally or when they experience it vicariously as an empathic response to other people's pain.
The study subjects took part in the experimental sessions simulating a ball tossing game, where one of the players was deliberately excluded by the others -- a condition of social pain. The player could be the subject herself or her assigned confederate.
In another series of experiments the subject or her confederate were administered a mildly painful stimulus -- condition of physical pain. When the subject was not personally the target of the stimulus, she could witness the entirety of her confederate's experience.
"Our data showed in conditions of social pain there is activation of an area traditionally associated with the sensory processing of physical pain, the posterior insular cortex," Silani said in a statement. "This occurred both when the pain was experienced in first person and when the subject experienced it vicariously."
The study was published in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience.