Posted 07.26.2018 | by AMRA

Social rejection can be hurtful, but people differ in how distressed they become following rejection. People also vary in the strategies they use to reduce distress.

Some people subdue feelings of distress by employing a “top-down” strategy in which cognitive-related brain centers suppress the activity of emotion-related brain centers. This “top-down” strategy is taxing on cognitive resources, and if those resources become depleted, feelings of distress can re-emerge.

Other people employ “bottom-up” strategies such as mindfulness of negative emotions that do not require suppression by cognitive-related brain centers.

Martelli et al. [Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience] studied whether highly mindful people feel less distress when socially rejected, and examined whether cognitive- and emotion-related brain responses to rejection varied according to levels of mindfulness.

The researchers assessed dispositional mindfulness levels among 40 participants (54% male, average age = 19 years) using the Mindful Attention Awareness Scale. Participants then played a computerized Cyberball game while undergoing functional magnetic resonance imaging.

Cyberball involves a pair of computer-generated characters playing virtual catch with the participant. Participants are misled into believing the computer-generated characters are avatars for real people playing the game. Initially, the computer-generated characters toss the ball between themselves and the participant equally, but in the final minute of play, they toss the ball only between themselves, effectively excluding the participant from the social interaction.

Approximately an hour after the game, participants completed a questionnaire measuring their level of social distress. Participants also completed a manipulation check that showed they believed they were playing Cyberball with live co-participants.

The neurobiology of distress and its suppression is complicated. Feelings of distress are associated with increased activity in the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (dACC), the anterior insula (AI) and the amygdala, while activity in the left ventrolateral prefrontal cortex (VLPFC) down-regulates distress.

One might think that the more the VLPFC down-regulates distress, the better we would feel, but things are not that simple. If the VLPFC becomes over-activated, its down-regulatory effect is followed by a refractory period accompanied by rebound distress. This is why top-down VLPFC regulation may not be the best strategy.

The results showed that mindfulness scores were significantly and negatively correlated with distress (r=-.43) an hour after rejection, and with VLPFC (r=-0.53), left amygdala (r=-0.44) right amygdala (r=-0.37) and dACC (r=-0.34) activity during rejection.

More mindful participants showed decreased functional connectivity between the VLPFC and the bilateral amygdala and dACC during moments of rejection in the game. The inverse relationship between mindfulness and distress scores was mediated by decreased VLPFC activity during rejection.

The study demonstrates that mindful people are less prone to distress after experiencing social exclusion. Results also show that mindful people are less likely to depend on VLPFC suppression to cope with rejection-related distress.
This is important because VLPFC suppression is a “top-down” strategy that taxes adaptive coping resources and, if resources are exhausted, paradoxically leads to increased distress.

Higher mindfulness was accompanied by lower levels of amygdala and dACC activity supporting the hypothesis that mindfulness exerts a beneficial effect on lower emotional centers independent of the VLPFC.

The study is limited by not adjusting for important covariates of mindfulness such as neuroticism. In addition, the one-hour delay between playing Cyberball and measuring distress limits our understanding of whether VLPFC suppression was initially more successful at reducing distress and only subsequently increased distress, or whether it was an inferior strategy from the start.


Martelli, A. M., Chester, D. S., Warren Brown, K., Eisenberger, N. I., & Nathan DeWall, C. (2018). When less is more: Mindfulness predicts adaptive affective responding to rejection via reduced prefrontal recruitment. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience.

[Link to abstract]