Social pain and the brain: controversies, questions, and where to go from here

Annu Rev Psychol. 2015 Jan 3:66:601-29. doi: 10.1146/annurev-psych-010213-115146. Epub 2014 Sep 22.


Emerging evidence has shown that social pain--the painful feelings that follow from social rejection, exclusion, or loss--relies on some of the same neural regions that process physical pain, highlighting a possible physical-social pain overlap. However, the hypothesis that physical pain and social pain rely on shared neural systems has been contested. This review begins by summarizing research supporting the physical-social pain overlap. Next, three criticisms of this overlap model are presented and addressed by synthesizing available research. These criticisms include the suggestions that (a) neural responses to social pain are indicative of conflict detection processes, rather than distress; (b) all negative affective processes, rather than social pain specifically, activate these pain-related neural regions; and (c) neural responses to social (and physical) pain reflect the processing of salience, rather than hurt. Implications of these findings for understanding social and physical pain are discussed, and key next steps are suggested.

Keywords: affective component of pain; anterior insula; dorsal anterior cingulate cortex; emotional pain; social distress; social-physical pain overlap.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Bereavement*
  • Cerebral Cortex / physiology*
  • Emotions / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Pain*
  • Psychological Distance*
  • Social Isolation*