Social Exclusion Measured in fMRI

 (Image: Pixabay CC0) (Image: Pixabay CC0)

A fMRI study shows the effect of social support on the social exclusion experience. Social belonging is a fundamental need for the life of human beings. For this reason, the experience of social exclusion can be very painful. This can evoke very negative consequences in society, causing many discomforts, problems, social isolation that can become a trigger for psychiatric illnesses.

When we live in a situation of social exclusion we feel very intense negative emotions that have an impact on social behaviour, such as isolation, depressive thoughts, sometimes so invasive that they can even lead to thoughts about suicide, as in the case of bullying. In the neuroscientific literature, it is known that the experience of social exclusion involves the areas of the brain usually correlated to the experiences of physical pain. So the feelings of pain that people feel when they are excluded are widely demonstrated at a neuroscientific level. To date, few studies have studied which kinds of social support are truly effective in situations of social exclusion.

The first paper that investigates the modulation, the effect of social support on neural correlates of social exclusion was published in the international journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience (SCAN). The first author of this research Rosalba Morese of UniversitÓ della Svizzera italiana of Lugano, Switzerland, carries out this study with a team of international researchers, among them Giorgia Silani and Claus Lamm of the University of Vienna. She used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to understand how social support can alleviate the negative consequences of social exclusion.

During this study, 71 women have participated. Each of them was subjected to two fMRI sessions during a ball throwing game called Cyberball already used in neuroscientific literature for social exclusion studies in which participant virtually plays with two other people. During the two experimental sessions each participant was excluded from the game, but between the two sessions the condition of social support was administered for a duration of 3 minutes. The participants were divided into 2 groups based on the kind of social support given by a female friend, emotional through the gentle touch of the hand, evaluative reading of some messages that helped to understand the situation experienced.

The results show that affective – emotional social support with hand touch is more effective because it reduces negative emotions and also the activation of brain areas recruited during the experience of social exclusion. Instead the evaluation-appraisal social support amplifies the perceived pain. In fact, the results indicate an increase in negative emotions and in activation of subgenual anterior cingulate cortex, brain area activated in depressed patients for negative emotions.

Rosalba Morese of UniversitÓ della Svizzera italiana, Lugano, Switzerland underlines that this research topic represents an important perspective for new studies to test the effectiveness of various kinds of social support to be able to help people who experience painful situations of social exclusion.

Morese R., Lamm C., Bosco M. F., Valentini M.C., Silani G. (2019) Social support modulates the neural correlates underlying social exclusion. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, nsz033.