Being Careful About How We Use Evidence for the "Reality" of Social Pain

Images courtesy of the
Social and Affective Neuroscience Laboratory
at UCLA.
Neuroscience is changing the way we view the brain. It is also changing the way we view ourselves. Discoveries announced in journal web pages one day find themselves as fuel for debate on newspaper op-ed pages the next. Some of these discoveries have practical implications and point toward promising new medical therapies. Others suggest new - and often troubling - approaches for dealing with social or legal problems. Many simply shed new light on long-standing questions about human nature.

Like it or not, the evidence that supports these discoveries turns out to be quite persuasive. Wearing the mantle of science, decorated with images that hint at the workings of the human mind, it commands a special, and perhaps not entirely deserved, authority. This evidence is also subject to being appropriated for purposes beyond that supported by conclusions of the research which gave rise to it. Consequently, we must be careful when we enlist neuroscience evidence in the service of even the best of causes, lest we unwittingly find ourselves endorsing the kind of erroneous thinking that we should be trying to correct.

I will offer two examples - one here and another in a blog post to follow - of what I consider to be incorrect applications of neuroscience evidence to well-intentioned efforts to change public attitudes. I will also point out the fallacies that I believe are at play.

Shared underpinnings of physical and social pain
My first example originates with a recent installment of the Emory University Neuroethics journal club that met to discuss the paper The pain of social disconnection: examining the shared neural underpinnings of physical and social pain by Naomi Eisenberger, director of the Social and Affective Neuroscience Laboratory at UCLA. (Here social pain refers to the distress we feel as a result of rejection, the loss of loved one or the unwanted end of an important personal relationship.) Eisenberger reviews evidence in support of the hypothesis that there is significant overlap between the brain structures associated with physical pain and those associated with social pain. Citing a variety of experimental results, she makes a compelling case that specific brain structures, namely the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex and the anterior insula, are implicated in the processing of both physical and pain. Other evidence, unrelated to neural imaging, supports this relationship.

The "reality" of social pain
Some participants in the journal club discussion expressed doubt that this discovery would change how social pain is regarded by the public at large. Others, though, saw it as a demonstration of the “reality” of social pain and welcomed the evidence as a way to alter public attitudes in a constructive way, holding out the hope that, with this evidence in hand, social pain would be taken more seriously. On the surface this appears to be to be a useful application of a neuroscience discovery. But complications are revealed with closer examination.

While I agree wholeheartedly with the need to change public attitudes about social pain in order that it be treated more effectively, I disagree with the idea of applying the evidence cited in the paper to support the claim that social pain has somehow been elevated to the status of “real” pain. My concerns are of two types. The first originates in the limitations imposed by the philosophy of science. The second has to do with how I believe that this application buys into a false dichotomy, one that contradicts the conclusions reached by the author of the paper herself.

Concern from the philosophy of science
With regard to the philosophy of science, I first note that so-called scientific truths do not arise out of necessity. Hypotheses rise or fall on experimental outcomes. Here the hypothesis that physical pain and social pain utilize common brain structures might well have been disproved by experiment. The studies undertaken might have revealed no overlap between social and physical pain. Would this outcome have weakened the resolve of advocates for social pain being taken more seriously? I don't think so.

To compound matters, scientific truths are always provisional. It may indeed turn out that the results of future experiments - or the detection of some flaws in ones that have been conducted - may lead to different, even contradictory, conclusions about the relationship between physical and social pain. (He who lives by the scan, dies by the scan.) Would we then abandon new efforts to have social pain regarded on a par with physical pain? I would hope not.

Although I appreciate the importance of understanding the neurological overlap between social pain and physical pain for a variety of reasons, in my opinion the reality of social pain rests entirely on the reality of our experience of it and not on the existence - or lack - of specific neurological correlates of any kind. I don't believe we should shy away from taking this position.

Concern having to do with an unsupported conclusion
This brings me to my second concern, and that is that, by insisting that the evidence cited in the paper supports the claim that social pain is as “real” as physical pain, we miss the important point made by Eisenberger herself in her conclusion.
… [T]he findings reviewed here highlight the counterintuitive nature of pain. We typically reify physical pain as “real” pain and often dismiss social pain as “psychological,” but the connection between the two kinds of pain suggests that each of these lay theories is only half right. Physical pain is a deeply psychological phenomenon that can be altered by expectations, mood and attention. Likewise, social pain is a deeply biological phenomenon that has been built into our brains and bodies over millions of years of mammalian evolution because of the crucial part it plays in our survival. A better understanding of the commonalities between these two types of painful experience may provide greater insight into the underlying nature of each.
The ecumenical and symmetrical consideration of physical and psychological pain here is noteworthy. This passage itself stands as a small manifesto against the false dichotomy usually associated with physical and psychological pain. By buying into this persistent distinction, even in the service of getting social pain to be taken more seriously, we may be helping to perpetuate a misunderstanding.

The challenge of unification 
The triumph of neuroscience may well be its contribution to our developing a unified understanding of the physical and the psychological. It will be a challenge to educate a public accustomed to seeing a clear cut delineation between these two modes of explanation. More the reason we should be careful about how we make our arguments using neuroscience evidence.

Want to cite this post?

Merlin, M. (2013). Being Careful About How We Use Evidence for the "Realiy" of Social Pain. The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on , from

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