Against the grain of much twentieth-century research on the nature and function of pain in humans, which tended to focus on injury and the bodily mechanics of pain signaling, recent neuroscientific research has opened a new front in the study of social and emotional pain. The premise is simple enough: when a person says they are in pain, they are in pain. It doesn’t matter whether the cause is a broken leg or bereavement or social isolation, pain is pain. The question, then, is whether what is happening in the brain corroborates what people say about being in pain, irrespective of whether there is a physical injury.
It transpires that pain only becomes meaningful, only becomes pain per se, when ‘painful’ stimuli have been affectively processed by the brain. From two different research directions, we have come to understand pain as something that the brain constructs, according to the cultural context, experience, fears, anxieties, and aversions of the person in pain.