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Why Being a Social Butterfly Is Good for Brain Health

Updated: Mar 27

I have always believed that a life spent surrounded by meaningful relationships is a life lived to the fullest. If you were to ask a stranger what matters most to them in their life, there is a high chance they would list their relationships with others, whether that be a family member or cherished friend.

Caring, healthy, meaningful relationships are like Miracle Grow for our brain and our nervous system. Human connection creates positive neuroplasticity and causes our neurochemistry to thrive. Socialization has a stress-reducing and health-promoting potential, since it carries the ability to heal us and facilitate beneficial motivation and behavior.

The Value of Meaningful Relationships on the Brain

There are many reasons why having a life filled with trusted, meaningful relationships is important to the health of our brains. We are innately hardwired to love and be loved, and crave intentional time with others. We are also wired for deep, interpersonal safety and trust. Unfortunately, not every relationship you encounter will be a positive and uplifting one. Being tuned into who you specifically feel good, safe, and comfortable with is crucial, just as it is to who you feel uncomfortable or unsafe around. A worthwhile exercise is to take notice of the feelings you experience when surrounded by specific people. 

Make a conscious effort to create time and space for those positive relationships, and offer less time and energy to those which feel unsafe or distressing. It can be easier said than done to observe our own feelings and emotions related to specific people, but in doing so, we allow more space for positive helpful emotions and give our brain health the grounds to thrive.

Data on Meaningful Relationships and The Brain

Studies show that meaningful, warm interactions are central to the health and strength of our minds. We know that there is a strong connection between the amount of social support in your daily life and the volume of your brain. 

A 2021 study done by neuroscientists at NYU Langone showed that people who have a beloved social circle to connect with and with whom they can share feelings and feel heard, tend towards stronger overall cognitive function. If your social circle is full of people whom you feel comfortable and safe to share with, you can actually increase your brain volume and cognitive acuity to that of someone four years younger than your actual age. That’s how deeply powerful, meaningful relationships can be for our mind.

The chemistry of our brains is legitimately set up to crave positive relationships and loving interactions. Research from Harvard Medical School teaches us the way our brain’s neural chemistry reacts to the love in our lives. Biological anthropologist Helen Fisher from Harvard Medical School published a revolutionary study that gave the neuroscience community the first functional MRI (fMRI) of the brains of individuals when responding to gestures of romantic love. Helen Fischer and her team recorded observations of over 2,500 brain scans of students who viewed pictures of someone they love and consider meaningful to their lives. Then, Fischer’s team compared the scans to ones taken when the students looked at pictures of more peripheral, less deeply meaningful acquaintances.

Several regions of the brain revealed high reactivity on these fMRI scans when the students viewed pictures of their loved ones. However, two primary regions of the brain stood out as being the most heavily impacted: the caudate nucleus, a region associated with reward detection related to social behavior, and the ventral tegmental region of the brain, which is associated with pleasure, focused attention, and the motivation to pursue and acquire rewards. Additionally, the ventral tegmental region of the brain is what is commonly regarded by the neuroscience community as the brain’s reward circuit. This circuit is considered to be a primitive neural network, meaning it is evolutionarily old, and it links with the nucleus accumbens. The VTA and its  association with reward means that it plays a substantial role in addictions of all kinds. Some of the other structures that contribute to the brain’s reward circuit are the amygdala, the hippocampus, and the prefrontal cortex.

Brain images of subjects who had a deep, intimate love caused the participants’ brains to become active in regions rich with dopamine, the so-called “feel-good” neurotransmitter, and oxytocin, commonly referred to as the love hormone. Oxytocin has a reciprocal relationship with vasopressin, meaning they balance each other out chemically. It's not always that simple, as nothing chemical ever is. However, we have the evidence to back that healthy social relationships improve our brian chemistry in a more positive than negative way.

Get Connected, Stay Connected

When we consider all the benefits of positive social relationships on our brain, it’s important that we do our best to maintain these kinds of connections. It can be a challenge to make the time to intentionally connect with loved ones in such a busy modern world, but your brain will thank you when you do! Try to set a window of time aside for coffee with a close friend, a phone call with a long distance family member, or a fun activity or hobby that you could do with a group of friends, like a game night or craft night. The more we connect and stay connected with others, the stronger our neurochemistry becomes, and the easier it is for our brains to heal and thrive.

Integrating Positive Relationships In Your Life Can Lead To:

  1. Stress Reduction: Engaging in healthy and meaningful relationships is actually linked to less production of cortisol in the body, which is a stress hormone. Data suggests that people who have a valued support system are less impacted by stress and that having trustworthy support can reduce the overwhelm often brought by stress in one’s life.

  2. Healing Trauma: Having a healthy support system can also help you heal from trauma. Whether it's having someone there to remind you to go to therapy or having a partner to help take your mind off the pain of your past, having someone by your side to navigate the ups and downs of life is crucial. Emotional support can go a long way toward helping a person recover from a lifelong trauma.

  3. Sense of Purpose: Engaging in healthy attachments can add additional purpose to our lives. Many people strive to feel like they're doing something good for someone else and improving the world in some way, and it’s easier to do this when you have people that encourage you to live this way. Being in a loving relationship, no matter what kind, can give a person a sense of well-being and purpose.

  4. Increased Healthspan: Research suggests that having strong social ties can increase longevity. Having at least one good and trusted friend to help walk you through issues like social anxiety or depression can end up being the key to longevity. The Blue Zones (the places in the world where people live longest and healthiest) provide evidence that meaningful social connections are a key longevity factor. 

At The Brain and Behavior Clinic, there is nothing we value more than helping our patients develop the capacity to engage in open, loving, healthy and relationships with those they care about most in their lives. We are aware that a life full of these kinds of relationships inevitably improves mental and brain health and will lead to a fuller and richer life.

Works Cited:

Brian Gazer. (2019, September 17). Why Healthy Relationships Are Good for Your Brain. Thrive Global. 

Cai, J., & Tong, Q. (2022). Anatomy and Function of Ventral Tegmental Area Glutamate Neurons. Frontiers in Neural Circuits, 16(867053). 

Northwestern Medicine Staff. (2017, February 13). 5 Benefits of Healthy Relationships. Northwestern Medicine; Northwestern Medicine. 

Salinas, J., O’Donnell, A., Kojis, D. J., Pase, M. P., DeCarli, C., Rentz, D. M., Berkman, L. F., Beiser, A., & Seshadri, S. (2021). Association of Social Support With Brain Volume and Cognition. JAMA Network Open, 4(8), e2121122.

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