This is Your Brain on Friendship

Why we function best when we feel connected to others

In 1987, American television viewers were first introduced to the slogan “This is your brain on drugs.” As those words rang out from TV sets across the country, the commercial’s narrator sternly cracked an egg into a hot frying pan and displayed to viewers the scrambled mess he had made. The scene was part of an advertising campaign funded by the Partnership for a Drug Free America.

Its intent was to shock viewers into comprehending the deleterious effects that substance use could have on our brains. Of course, the scare tactics like these that were part of the War on Drugs were declared largely a failure, and the research on medicinal drug use has complicated the conversation about Our Brains on Drugs.

The effects of drugs on the brain aside, this commercial also serves as a reminder that our human brains are malleable–and thus vulnerable. Our brains need certain elements to be present in our body and in our environment for it to grow, to learn, and to function optimally.

Two of the most important of these elements are friendship and connection to others. In fact, “Your Brain on Friendship” looks and feels as different from that now-famous egg in a frying pan as one could imagine.

The experience of social inclusion and connection among humans feels like winning a neurological jackpot. According to one study, the brain reactions to feeling loved and cared for by pumping our neural networks with Oxytocin, the neurotransmitter responsible increasing warm and fuzzy feelings and decreasing stress and anxiety. In short, our brain treats and rewards social pleasure equivalently to physical pleasure.

The brain also releases more endorphins-a pain relieving and pleasure inducing neurotransmitter- when activities are done in group settings compared to in isolation. Many humans even display a lesser response of the stress hormone cortisol during interaction with adverse stimuli when a friend or loved one is present.

Moreover, social connection has even been proven to be a predictor of longevity. According to a longitudinal study of individuals from 1938 to the present day, those who reported the most satisfaction in relationships at age 50 were the healthiest (and most likely to be living) at age 80. The study posits that secure relationships protect the brains of elderly individuals from decline and that the stress of isolation can contribute to early memory decline. Another related study found that social isolation was a more important risk factor for death than inactivity and obesity.

In addition to serving as a strong predictor of emotional well-being, social attachment and connection are important ingredients to another central task for the human mind: forging a sense of self.

Our big, fat, social brains take stock of who we are based largely on how others react to us. Descriptive words like “timid” and “bossy” and “vivacious” and “grouchy” lack meaning outside of the social context and interactions which shape those terms. Similarly, the student who receives an 85% on an exam has limited information about how to feel about their score outside of the context of his peers’ reactions and feelings and outside of the context of societal expectations placed on students.

Moreover, the feelings we hold about ourselves as individuals are shaped in large part by the feelings we learned others held of us early in life. In his book Wired for Love, author and psychologist Stan Tatkin states:

“Human beings don’t start by thinking anything about themselves, good or bad. We learn to love ourselves precisely because we have experienced being loved by someone. We learn to take care of ourselves because somebody has taken care of us.”

In short, we know ourselves because others know us. We spend our lives defining and redefining ourselves in concordance with (or in reaction to) our experiences (or lack thereof) with other people.

However, Americans today are finding it more and more difficult to sustain friendship and connection, despite the evidence pinning it as an important element of mental health and wellness. According to a study by researchers at UC San Diego, 3 out of every 4 Americans experience moderate to high levels of loneliness.

There are a myriad of reasons we could point to as potential causes for this cultural loneliness. Probably high on the list is the replacement of in-person social networks with virtual ones. For some, loneliness stems from experiences with mental illness that interferes with our brains tendency towards social responsiveness. For others, loneliness may come as a result of trauma and other emotional wounds that result in a sense of isolation. Regardless of the reasons, loneliness is a universal human experience that comes part and parcel with our brain’s wiring for social connection.

For times when you feel lonely or simply want to increase those good feelings that come along with social inclusion, here are some tips to follow:

  • Take Stock: When we feel isolated, our brains lack those feel-good chemicals I mentioned earlier. This can cause us to spiral into some pretty bleak thoughts about our (lack of) options for social connection. Be curious and questioning in the face of those thoughts. Play detective and see what’s really available in your social network.
  • Reach Out: You wouldn’t wait for your plants to water themselves. Don’t wait for your social life to tend to itself either. Pro-social behaviors like reaching out to a friend in need can feel even better than being on the receiving end of help, one study shows.
  • Meet Up: Online and in-person meetup groups are abundant and are (rightfully) becoming more normalized by the day. These structured events might be a great option if you notice you have anxiety about meeting new people, as you can often research them ahead of time and know what to expect.
  • Seek Help: Sometimes we run up against sticking points in our brain that feel too big to tackle on our own, and it’s very common that these points often relate to how we relate to others. Doing some work with a therapist to better understand your experiences and to change your relationship with these sticking points can be very helpful in making changes in your life.

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