A very interesting study in a book published in the USA on current results in neuroscience reported the following: Subjects were asked what they fear more - death or speaking as a speaker in front of a large, unknown audience.
Who would have thought that? The majority of the respondents rated the fear of the speech as the highest. An American comedian concluded that visitors to a large funeral service would obviously prefer to lie in the coffin at the front of the altar than have to give the funeral speech in front of it.
Deep fear of social exclusion
But joking aside: What does neuroscientists think is behind this fear phenomenon? Why are we put in such fear at a public appearance?
It seems to be the public aspect, and especially the prospect of being publicly rejected by people which causes us to panic when faced with the challenge of speaking to a dozen, a few hundred, or thousands of strangers.
Matthew D. Lieberman - representative of the so-called social-cognitive neurosciences and author of the book mentioned above - speculates that the most painful experiences of our lives ultimately have to do with "social" pain: For example, when we are separated from a loved one by their death or we are rejected by someone we love and appreciate.
Social pain is real pain.
Why is that? - Lieberman further claims that the threat to, or even loss of, social ties in the brains of most mammals causes similar pain phenomena to those associated with persistent severe physical injury. He doesn't think social and physical pain are the same. But he believes that social pain is as real and serious as physical pain.
In fact, Lieberman has empirical evidence to support his claim. In fact, it refers to neurological examinations that revealed that a human brain region * called "dACC" plays an essential role in our physical sensation of pain. Studies on social pain have found that the more a person is affected by social rejection, the more this region of the brain is activated.
Lieberman reports that two American neuroscientists - Nathan DeWall and Naomi Eisenberger - were able to investigate this phenomenon more closely: They undertook a series of studies to test the hypothesis that "pain killers" like the universally used aspirin or Tylenol tablets do social pain as well can relieve like physical pain. After all, these drugs affect the same brain region involved in the pain process. Her studies provided a whole host of confirmatory evidence that the drugs commonly referred to as "headache tablets" actually alleviate the typical pain caused by social exclusion and rejection by others.
Lieberman draws the following conclusion:
We have been persuaded from an early age that we can ignore the rejection, for example in the form of ridicule names and teasing by our classmates, our friends. "Sticks and stones will break my bones, but names will never hurt you!" American parents are happy to say on this occasion - for us it means: "Don't take it to heart: names are smoke and mirrors!"
Such sayings have been dug out for generations - they do not agree with the facts. Because ridicule and rejection cause real pain and massively damage our personal development.
*: dACC = (dorsal anerior cingulate cortex / (d.) dorsal anterior toric gyrus cinguli
Mathew Dylan Lieberman (PHD) is a professor and director of the Social Cognitive Neuroscience Research Laboratory at the University of Los Angeles (UCLA) - Department of Psychology, Psychiatry) and Behavioral Sciences.
Matthew D. Lieberman, "Chapter 3: Broken hearts and boken legs" in: Social - Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect; Oxford University Press 2013; Pp. 39 - 70.
Heart illustration and photo: sxc
Brain representations: Heinz W. Droste