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Reputation and Social Pain

September 21, 2009

kid-dunce-hatI was impressed by a teaching I read recently from the Dalai Lama about praise and criticism, and the respective pleasure and pain we tend to derive from being either praised or criticized:

If we really stop to think about praise and criticism, we will see they do not have the least importance. Whether we receive praise or criticism is of no account. The only important thing is that we have a pure motivation, and let the law of cause and effect be our witness. If we are really honest, we can see that it makes no difference whether we receive praise and acclaim. The whole world might sing our praises, but if we have done something wrong, then we will still have to suffer the consequences for ourselves, and we cannot escape them. If we act only out of a pure motivation, all the beings of the three realms can criticize and rebuke us, but none of them will be able to cause us to suffer. According to the law of karma, each and every one of us must answer individually for our actions.

This is how we can put a stop to these kinds of thoughts altogether, by seeing how they are completely insubstantial, like dreams or magical illusions. When people praise us and we glow with delight, it is because we think that being praised is beneficial. But that is like thinking that there is some substance to a rainbow or a dream. However much benefit appears to accrue from praise and acclaim, actually there’s none at all.

The Dalai Lama goes on to talk about the real possibilities for escaping the ebb and flow of pleasure and pain that are tied to the praise or criticism transmitted by other humans toward us. (For a fuller text of this teaching, check out the September 18th online post from Tricycle Magazine). While considering His Holiness’ assertions about healthily detaching from external opinion, I couldn’t help to think about the brain mechanisms involved in the experience of social pain.

An underlying theme for this post could be summarized as phenomenology points to physiology. In other words, the experience of a mental function gives us clues about the brain wiring going on behind the scenes.

Several publications have reported that social pain—the kind caused by embarrassment or ostracism—is mediated by the same brain regions that report physical pain, i.e., the anterior cingulate cortex. In other words, for all intents and purposes, social pain hurts in much the same way that physical pain hurts—even employing comparable brain regions. In a June 2009 publication of Social Neuroscience, researchers Keiichi Onoda and fellow colleagues at Hiroshima University report data on brain mechanisms that help to reduce the experience of social pain. In this study, participants were deliberately excluded from a group in order to induce an experience of mild social rejection. Those who received encouraing messages from others following their exclusion from the group showed increased activity in their prefrontal cortex and less activity in their pain center (the anterior cingulate) in comparison to other study subjects who were socially excluded but received no such encouraging messages from others. Taken as a whole, the encouraging messages received from others helped to stimulate the prefontal region of the cortex, which then in turn helped to diminish the activity in the anterior cingulate that is related to social pain.

Going back to the Dalai Lama’s teaching, the observation that people can cultivate detachment from the praise and blame of others indicates a robust network of neural regions involved in self-regulating the shame that one experiences in response to social cues from the external environment. It further indicates that this regulatory system must be plastic, i.e., capable of increasing its own power and connections in response to repeated use. It raises open-ended questions about which brain regions might be involved, and about the choreography of these regions in self-regulating social pain or pleasure.

dalai lamaWhat do you think? Is it true that praise and blame are like illusions that have no true existence? Don’t other peoples’ opinions matter in the “real world”? Is it ultimately beneficial to cultivate detachment from the criticism and the blame of other individuals? What is the difference between detachment from the opinions of others that is cultivated by a Lama, and the disregard for social norms and cues manifested by a sociopath?


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  1. Great comments and thoughts Michael. Sorry for the curt response, but one important thought that came to my mind is that while I personally should try to regulate my need for praise so that I can persist in worthwhile endeavors whether or not I am commended by my associates and learn to seek goodness, knowledge and wisdom for their own benefit, I think it is still good for me to cultivate a talent for praising others in a beneficial way.

  2. I don’t know If I said it already but …This blog rocks! I gotta say, that I read a lot of blogs on a daily basis and for the most part, people lack substance but, I just wanted to make a quick comment to say I’m glad I found your blog. Thanks, 🙂

    A definite great read..Jim Bean

  3. KenM permalink

    To answer your question about the difference between a Lama and a sociopath: I think a Lama is aware of how others perceive him but he doesn’t let it influence him. A sociopath has no clue how other people perceive him, and so he has no feedback to direct him towards normalcy. I once mentioned to someone that I’d heard that self-awareness was one of the most important traits employers look for in job candidates. He responded that he didn’t care what other people think. I didn’t know what to say at the time, but now I do – there is a big difference between being self-aware and caving to social pressures.

  4. Carl Youngblood permalink

    I think it is important to point out that positive reinforcement has been shown to be an extremely critical part of helping kids grow into well-adjusted adults. Even though the Dalai Lama brings up some important points, I think he is talking to people who need to move onto an even higher plane, but that it would be wrong to assume in reading that that he was attempting to discourage people from giving praise to others. At least, that is my interpretation.

  5. I am super late to this blog post party, but saw the post in the “most popular” on your side bar and clicked.

    I find myself trying to figure out these physical mind vs. spiritual conundrums often. Ultimately I think that there are many things that are “normal” to being human, including our response to criticism and praise. Neuroscience often reveals what we already feel to be true. But as the Buddha pointed out thousands of years ago, what is “normal”, or rather, human, ends up causing us a lot of suffering. The way out is to transcend the normal and move to higher ways of thinking and being that are beyond our biological origins.

    So I think both ideas are right. The pain or pleasure that we feel is real and we can “see” that it is real. At the same time, they are also illusions. In order to get from A to B without becoming a sociopath requires a healthy spiritual practice. The difference between someone who detaches spiritually from a sociopath is about the intent.

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