Psychoanalysis

Social Pain of Isolation Involves Same Neural Process as Physical Pain – V

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Lieberman’s neuroscience research, along with the work of others, provides compelling evidence that the social pain of isolation involves “the same neural and neurochemical processes invoked during physical pain,” points out Prof. Ashoka, in the fifth part of his research paper. A Different Truths exclusive.

To Lieberman, his neuroscience research, along with the work of others, provides compelling evidence that the social pain of isolation involves “the same neural and neurochemical processes invoked during physical pain.” Indeed, FMRI studies that he conducted in collaboration with psychologist Naomi Eisenberger demonstrated that when people were subjected to social isolation, it affected neural activity in certain cortical regions of the brain associated with physical distress, in the same way physical pain would. Lieberman’s study has been replicated dozens of times in labs around the world. Lieberman concluded that the social pain caused by isolation is not metaphorical pain but has a physical effect on brain activity causing the brain to signal distress.

Lieberman concluded that the social pain caused by isolation is not metaphorical pain but has a physical effect on brain activity causing the brain to signal distress.

The Amicus Curiae Brief of Medical and other Scientific and Health Related Professionals filed in the United States Supreme Court case of Ziglar v. Abbasi also used neuro-science studies to support the proposition that solitary confinement causes both serious psychological and physical harm. The brief cites co-author Huda Akil for the proposition that neuroscience studies suggest that solitary confinement can “fundamentally alter the structure of the human brain in profound and permanent ways.” Akil’s view reflects the knowledge that the human brain, like all mammalian brains, alters its structure and functioning based on stimuli from its environment. This process, termed “neuroplasticity,” subsumes several mechanisms, including changes in branching or arborisation of neurons to enable new connections to neighbouring brain cells, changes in activity of certain brain circuits, and, in specialised brain regions, changes in the rate of birth of new neural cells that become embedded in critical circuits.

The hippocampus plays a critical role in handling the interface of the individual with the external world by mapping the physical environment in three dimensions

One region that is very “plastic” is the hippocampus (or seahorse, due to its shape). The hippocampus plays a critical role in handling the interface of the individual with the external world by mapping the physical environment in three dimensions: it sets the level of emotional reactivity and anxiety, it encodes stressful events and controls the body’s response to stressors, and it plays a primary role in encoding memories of recent events and determining whether they are destined for long-term storage elsewhere in the brain. These changes are typically adaptive in that they enable the individual to assess a context (physical and emotional), react to it appropriately, and remember it and anticipate future responses. But under conditions of severe and sustained stress, the hippocampus loses this neuroplasticity: it physically shrinks, the rate of birth of new cells diminishes or ceases, the arbors regress, and the opportunity for contacts with neighbouring cells decreases. It is therefore not surprising that this brain region begins to fail in its functioning, with loss of emotional and stress control, loss of stress regulation, sometimes defects in memory, spatial orientation, and other cognitive processes, and in extreme cases, lasting changes in mood, including severe de-pression. Moreover, since the brain is highly interconnected, this is but one node of many changes that propagate across the brain and greatly diminish the individual’s affective and cognitive functions, resulting in long-term deficits in each.

As argued by Akil in the context of the amicus brief, each of the key features of solitary confinement…is by itself sufficient to change the brain

As argued by Akil in the context of the amicus brief, each of the key features of solitary confinement–lack of meaningful interaction with others and the natural world and lack of physical activity and visual stimulation–“is by itself sufficient to change the brain…dramatically depending on whether it lasts briefly or is extended.” As noted in the brief, many neurobiological studies “reveal that certain regions of the brain of people who experience extreme psychological stress (like those in solitary confinement) literally diminish in volume because the neural cells become shrivelled.”

(To be continued)

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