What makes us feel a sense of loss?

Is losing something that we like the same as getting something we don’t like? This subtle question has caused debate in psychology and neuroscience for decades. The apparent similarity between the two has lent support to the popular idea that losing money or a relationship break-up is positively ‘painful’. However, clearly other situations of loss – such as not winning the lottery – do not feel quite the same. In a new article, researchers from CiNet and Cambridge University (Masaki Maruyama, Ben Seymour and Benedetto de Martino) have got together to try and shed light on different types of loss. Based on theory from economics, they argue that the key to feeling a positive loss is how the brain sets our ‘reference point’ – the average standard by which we judge things as generally good or bad. These ideas are now forming the basis of new joint collaborative research into the state of chronic pain and illness.

The work is part of an important strategic collaboration formed last year between CiNet, Cambridge University and Princeton University in the field of pain research, supported the JSPS Program for Advancing International Research Networks. The goal of the research program is to understand if abnormal brain networks underlie human chronic pain – a major cause of disability and socioeconomic cost in Japan and world-wide. The new article – ‘When is a loss a loss? Excitatory and inhibitory processes in loss-related decision-making’ is being published this week in Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences.

Ben Seymour, Masaki Maruyama, Benedetto De Martino. “When is a loss a loss? Excitatory and inhibitory processes in loss-related decision-making.” Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences Volume 5, Pages 122–127.