Earaches, Loneliness & the Health Benefits of Kindness

Posted on December 4, 2012

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weighing pain

The science and reality of psychological pain

I was recently reading an article about emotional pain.  It put a scientific gloss on what was clear to me already, that emotional pain is real pain.  But it added a few other surprising insights on top of that.

Of course emotional pain is real pain.  Loneliness has already been shown to shorten peoples’ lives by several years.  If it kills you, by definition it is real.  However now science has confirmed that emotional pain activates the same parts of the brain as physical pain.  Emotional pain is processed by the brain as injury.

Of course.

Sticks and stones, but…?  There ain’t no but.  Social rejection and isolation can bring real pain.  The schoolyard rhyme referred to doth protest too much, methinks.  It’s just plain wrong.

As I said, I already knew most of that.  But what about those other insights?  Apparently, sensitivity to pain is directly related to sensitivity to social slights.  Extroverts are less sensitive to actual physical pain than introverts.  And they tend to shrug off social slights much more easily than introverts do.  People on pain meds are also better at enduring social slights. Gives a whole new dimension of meaning to the term “sensitive sort,” doesn’t it?

But then really, can it be as simple as all that?  Maybe it is.  It reminds me of the insight, scientifically observed, that conservatives tend to be less tolerant of messes.  Their over-vamped disgust reflex is reflected socially in their general intolerance for complexity and diversity.

The evidence appears to be indicating more and more that our social character is a reflection of our physical, even our chemical character.

I’ll try not to let my ego be disturbed by that.

Returning to the subject of pain, again science confirms what every kid knows, that mom (and dad) can indeed kiss it better.  Social support actually physically lessens pain, and the response to pain.  Lack of social support increases sensitivity to pain.

I remember this vividly from childhood.  I was six years old and living with another family, and one day on the way to school I got an earache.  I remember lying in bed that night whimpering and tossing and feeling sorry for myself because the pain wouldn’t go away.  Then suddenly my father came up to the room, who I wasn’t expecting and who I hadn’t seen for months.  He lay down beside me and put his arms around me, and the pain in my ear disappeared as suddenly as if it had been poured out of a glass.  An injection of morphine could hardly have been more dramatic.

Love can banish pain, as anyone who remembers childhood will already know.  But what recent experiments have also made clear is that being kind can banish pain as well.  The benefits of kindness flow both ways, with both soother and the soothee displaying a reduced sensitivity to pain according to scientific measure.

Now that’s an interesting insight to get from a scientific article.  We always knew that being kind and helping others was good for the soul.  Science has now determined it to be good for the health as well.

Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised.

See Why words are as painful as sticks and stones – New Scientist.  This article is currently available via a free subscription but will duck behind a paywall by mid-December, 2012, alas.

Posted in: health, philosophy