Research confirms that our need for intimacy begins at birth.
Scientists followed a group of infants who were sufficiently nourished but were not held or caressed by their mothers and found that more than half of the babies experienced developmental delays later on in life.
Why is this so? Because staying connected with others reduces stress, which lowers the amount of cortisol and other hormones in our brains and bodies. Stress hormones heighten our risk for age-related diseases such as Alzheimer’s, heart disease, and diabetes — all conditions that threaten mental acuity.
On the other hand, social bonding and feelings of belonging increase the release of oxytocin, one of the brain’s “feel-good” hormones.
The neural networks in our brains are designed to keep us connected to others. Investigators who specialize in a field known as social neuroscience are just now beginning to understand the complex brain circuitry that controls our personal interactions.
For example, Dr. James Coan and his colleagues at the University of Virginia have found that simply holding a spouse’s hand alters the brain’s response to threats. In experiments, the threat-sensitive regions in the frontal lobe showed less activation when holding a spouse’s hand compared to holding a stranger’s hand.
Researchers at the University of Michigan found that intense emotional pain, such as feelings of rejection after an unwanted romantic breakup, is processed by the same pain-processing neural pathways that modulate actual physical pain. Using MRI scanning, the scientists examined the brains of 40 people who recently felt rejected by a partner, and compared their brain activity as they performed two different activities.
The research volunteers were first shown a picture of their recent partner, and then they experienced a very mild physical pain comparable to briefly holding a very hot cup of coffee. In both scenarios, the same areas of the brain — called the secondary somatosensory cortex and the dorsal posterior insula region — lit up on the brain scan.
Both of these brain regions were previously thought to only be affected by the sensation of
These findings suggest that the emotions people experience when rejected in a relationship can be comparable to physical pain. The scientists hope that this line of research might also lead to discoveries about how social rejection can sometimes cause or exacerbate physical disorders.
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