Being Excluded Does This To Your Brain

I was the kid who was picked last for kickball.

There were always variables that went into picking teams for elementary recess kickball games: who were the team captains, who else was playing, what sort of ball we were using, whether cherry picker kicks were allowed or not. Some days, I was picked halfway through the torturous selection process, which was really more about proving your worth as a human being than which team you’d play on. But most of the time, I was one of, if not the very last person to be selected to play on a kickball team… if chosen at all.

Maybe you’ve been there. Whether it’s being chosen to play kickball, finding your place at a new job, or wandering into a new church community, we long to belong and we fear being rejected. One of the worst pains we can feel isn’t even a physical pain, but a social pain:

Being excluded by those around us.

Why is this? Why do we fear rejection so much? It turns out our brains are wired to avoid it.

We are designed for community. So much of our daily functionality and general well-being is determined by our connection with other people. We are social beings who thrive through interdependence, not independence. That’s not just mushy-gushy-feel-good talk coming from an extrovert who loves people, like myself. It’s in the brain science.

There is a special part of our brain that helps us avoid pain. It’s called the Dorsal Anterior Cingulate Cortex (or dACC, for short). The dACC’s primary function is to act as an alarm system for your body that picks up the distress of physical pain. It’s one thing to feel physical pain when you step on a lego, but it’s another thing to consciously process that stepping on a lego is bad and conclude that you shouldn’t step on legos anymore. That’s the dACC doing its job.

But here’s the crazy part. The dACC doesn’t just detect physical pain, but social pain as well. Social psychologist Amy Banks writes,

“To our brains, the pain of social rejection is the same as the pain from a physical injury or illness.” 

Amy Banks, Wired to Connect

Our dACC lights up whenever we feel socially isolated, excluded, or left out, and processes it as painful. This is a biological survival technique that has been engrained into our brains ever since our ancestors lived in tribes. If you were ever isolated from the group, death was pretty much guaranteed. Today, that translates to feeling major FOMO when our friends go bowling without us. Although our society has evolved to functioning more independently than ever before, the brains God designed for us still register that being left out hurts, and that we need to get back together with our “group” if we are to survive and thrive.

This is why division is so painful. This is why segregation is so destructive. This is why racism, sexism, nationalism, and so many other “ism’s” that are based on the exclusion of others hurts people so much on the other side. It’s the social equivalent of being punched in the gut. It’s no wonder we’d rather spend time in groups of people who are just like us. It’s safer.

But the inverse is also the same. When we interact with people who are different from us, who would often be separated or excluded from our normal social interactions, we are providing opportunities for healing and growth through every interaction. When we can go out of our way to spot the person at the party, in the church lobby, or in the office break room who are by themselves, we are providing an opportunity to literally heal them from the pain they may be feeling.

Befriending the lonely becomes a profound ministry of healing. You never know how far a basic interaction can go that shows you notice the other, and that they matter.

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