Grasping the Thorn
We tend to describe our feelings of social pain in very physical terms. We are crushed. We are heart-broken. Our feelings are hurt. We naturally forge a mind-body connection with our language. Indeed, social pain, say from rejection or from the loss of a loved one, has been noted on neuro-imaging studies to activate the same part of the brain that lights up in the face of physical pain as well: namely the anterior cingulate cortex. Well, in a fascinating study published recently in Psychological Science, researchers at several large universities in the United States and Canada asked the question: if social and physical pain are mediated by the same neural mechanisms, might a simple pain-reliever such as acetaminophen (Tylenol) relieve the pain of social rejection? Their surprising conclusion? Yes it can!
They conducted two simple experiments. In the first, 62 healthy undergraduate students were randomized into two groups. One took 500 mg of Tylenol twice a day. The other took a placebo on the same schedule. Both groups recorded social pain as well as positive emotions they experienced each day. Reports of hurt feeling decreased significantly in the Tylenol group but changed not at all in the placebo group.
In the second experiment, 25 healthy undergrads were randomized to take either 1000 mg of Tylenol a day or placebo. Then, they participated in a computer game while functional neuroimaging data was collected. In round one of the game, the study participant was included in the entire game. In round 2, participants were initially included, but then excluded by two other game-players. As the authors predicted, the folks who took Tylenol showed significantly less activity in the anterior cingulate cortex in response to social exclusion than those who took placebo.
So what does this all mean? Surely we all shouldn’t start downing large quantities of acetaminophen. Just because we know how to blunt our feelings, that doesn’t mean we should, right? Isn’t learning to deal with hurt feelings and rejection a developmental milestone? A part of life?
I started thinking about this study in terms of literary rejection. As a writer, I get rejected regularly: the New York Times. The Boston Globe. But if I start popping pills to mitigate the trauma of rejection, won’t I also diminish the highs of acceptance? Chicken Soup. JAMA. (JAMA!) Rejection is part of the writing life. It just comes with the territory. The best rejection comes with some helpful advice that may improve the piece or open up another venue for its placement. Rejection keeps us striving. Without eight magazines rejecting the first iterations of an article, we might not learn what it needs to be accepted by the ninth. Or, as the French writer and physician Louis Ferdinand Celine noted, “I think all great innovations are built on rejections.”
Writers are always told we have to develop some seriously thick skin to survive in this business. If we start dropping Tylenol with every rejection, perhaps we would fail to develop the appropriately bulky integument apparently essential to every successful author. Indeed, as Anne Bronte once observed, “…He that dare not grasp the thorn should never crave the rose.” But I do crave the rose. I love seeing my words in print. I’m thrilled whenever an article or essay is accepted for publication. I love keeping score.
Now I have an agent. My book proposal for my memoir CRASH! will be sent out to all of the big houses starting in January. I am busy growing my thick skin in anticipation of each round of rejections. On second thought, maybe I should buy stock in big pharma now.