My niece Emma is an exceptionally sensitive and expressive child. A few years ago my brother came down to visit us from the States and Emma tagged along too. She was about six then. My son Kevin, then five, was happy to have a new companion to play with, and they were soon inseparable. Unfortunately, a few days into the vacation an intense fight erupted. It began with a simple dispute centering on their unwillingness to share a toy. After several minutes of haggling to play with it, Kevin snatched the toy. Emma’s protests went louder and louder until at last Kevin refused to acknowledge Emma anymore. Emma suddenly burst into tears. On being asked why, she said painfully, “Kevin really hurt my feelings.” Emma had not been hurt when the toy was snatched. She had not been hurt when they had argued. She was hurt when Kevin had stopped speaking to her.
In another incident at work, a young reportee shared a personal story with me. Inter-caste marriages still cause contention in large sections of Indian society. This young man had gone against his family’s wishes and married a girl of his choosing from outside his caste. Although he had expected an upheaval from his family, they meted out what he considered was the most hurtful punishment. They had cut off from him completely. The poor young man was left so deeply hurt, he nearly shook with emotion while narrating his story.
The sense of being ignored or isolated can be very painful for child and adult alike. Even our expression for it is “hurt feelings”—similar to a bruised elbow or a scratched leg that you can feel hurting. This expression is not too far from reality—neurophysiologists have found a much closer link to emotional and physical sensation than we’d imagine. Not only do emotions lead to physiological changes in the body, but emotional duress causes real physical pain. This is why a feeling of excitement can get your blood rushing and why stress, even emotional and not just physical stress, can result in a headache.
But it isn’t just a matter of perception. We don’t just perceive physical and emotional pain in a similar manner. Physical and emotional pain are processed in exactly the same regions of the brain! This was concluded in Dr. Naomi Eisenberger’s experiments that compared regions showing neural activity during social isolation versus during physical pain. Social rejection may, therefore, not just be figuratively but be literally “painful”. The next time we consider ignoring someone or losing our handle at them, we might do well to remember that our act is equivalent to a physical assault! It is terribly unfortunate then that our social norms, that correctly advise restraint rather than letting-go at hurtling physical abuse on someone, rarely meet the same standards of advocacy against non-physical assault.
Vishal Jacob is the National Head - Digital Media at WaveMaker India. He has over 17 years of experience in the field of digital marketing, communication planning and consumer behavior. The works of some of the teams he has led and mentored have won recognition and accolades both in India and globally.