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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Why Social Pain Can Live on: Different Neural Mechanisms Are Associated with Reliving Social and Physical Pain.

  • Author(s): Meyer, Meghan L
  • Williams, Kipling D
  • Eisenberger, Naomi I
  • et al.

Although social and physical pain recruit overlapping neural activity in regions associated with the affective component of pain, the two pains can diverge in their phenomenology. Most notably, feelings of social pain can be re-experienced or "relived," even when the painful episode has long passed, whereas feelings of physical pain cannot be easily relived once the painful episode subsides. Here, we observed that reliving social (vs. physical) pain led to greater self-reported re-experienced pain and greater activity in affective pain regions (dorsal anterior cingulate cortex and anterior insula). Moreover, the degree of relived pain correlated positively with affective pain system activity. In contrast, reliving physical (vs. social) pain led to greater activity in the sensory-discriminative pain system (primary and secondary somatosensory cortex and posterior insula), which did not correlate with relived pain. Preferential engagement of these different pain mechanisms may reflect the use of different top-down neurocognitive pathways to elicit the pain. Social pain reliving recruited dorsomedial prefrontal cortex, often associated with mental state processing, which functionally correlated with affective pain system responses. In contrast, physical pain reliving recruited inferior frontal gyrus, known to be involved in body state processing, which functionally correlated with activation in the sensory pain system. These results update the physical-social pain overlap hypothesis: while overlapping mechanisms support live social and physical pain, distinct mechanisms guide internally-generated pain.

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