Huberman Lab - Science of Social Bonding in Family, Friendship & Romantic Love

Welcome to the Huberman Lab Podcast,

where we discuss science

and science-based tools for everyday life.

I’m Andrew Huberman,

and I’m a professor of neurobiology and ophthalmology

at Stanford School of Medicine.

Today’s episode is about the biology, psychology,

and practices of social bonding.

From the day we are born until the day we die,

the quality of our social bonds

dictates much of our quality of life.

It should therefore be no surprise that our brain,

and indeed much of our entire nervous system,

is wired for social bonds.

Now, social bonds occur between infant and parent.

There are even particular wiring diagrams

within the brain and spinal cord and body

that are oriented towards the specific bonds

that occur between infant and mother,

as well as infant and father.

And we have specific brain circuitries for friendship,

specific brain circuitries that are activated

in romantic relationships.

And as it goes, specific brain circuitries

that are activated when we break up with a romantic partner

or when they break up with us,

or when somebody passes away, moves away,

or otherwise leaves our lives in one form or another.

Today, we are going to talk about

those brain and nervous system circuitries.

We are also going to talk about the neurochemicals

and hormones that underlie their function.

And we are going to touch on a number of important

and actionable tools that you can apply in everyday life.

And because we are headed into the holiday,

the New Year’s and Christmas holiday,

that you can deploy in your various interactions

with family members and friends.

And should you not be spending time

with family members and friends,

today we are also going to talk about

how to achieve social bonds out of the context

of family and romantic partnership and friendship.

So today’s episode is going to include a lot of science,

a lot of actionable tools,

and I’m confident that you will come away

from today’s episode with tremendous knowledge

about how you function.

For instance, if you’re an introvert or an extrovert,

why is that?

Turns out there may be a neurochemical basis for that.

Maybe you’re somebody that really enjoys social media.

Maybe you’re somebody that doesn’t.

Today, I’m going to talk about a gene or a set of genes

that predicts whether or not you will follow more people

or seek out more online social interactions or fewer.

Believe it or not, there’s biology around that now,

and it’s excellent peer-reviewed work.

We will also talk about how bonds are broken

and why breakups can be so painful,

not just romantic breakups,

but breakups with friendships and coworkers

and how to move through those more seamlessly.

So regardless of your age and regardless of whether or not

you are in a romantic partnership of one form or another

or not, I do believe this episode will be useful to you

as you explore the social bonds that already exist

in your life and as you seek out new

and changing social bonds.

Before we begin, I’d like to emphasize that this podcast

is separate from my teaching and research roles at Stanford.

It is, however, part of my desire and effort

to bring zero cost to consumer information about science

and science-related tools to the general public.

In keeping with that theme,

I’d like to thank the sponsors of today’s podcast.

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Let’s talk about the biology of social bonding.

And I want to point out

that I use the word bonding intentionally.

It’s a verb.

And in biology, we want to think about verbs

because everything in biology is a process.

It’s not an event.

And when we think about things in biology as a process,

that means it’s going to have multiple steps.

And today we are going to explore the steps,

start to finish of social bonding,

meaning how social bonds are established,

how they are maintained, how they are broken,

and how they are reestablished.

Now, an important feature of biology generally,

but in particular, as it relates to social bonding,

is that the neural circuits,

meaning the brain areas and neurons and the hormones,

things like oxytocin, which we’ll talk about today,

and the other chemicals in the brain and body

that are responsible for the process we call social bonding

are not unique to particular social bonds.

They are generic.

What I mean by that is that the same brain circuits

that are responsible for establishing a bond

between parent and child

are actually repurposed in romantic relationships.

And this might not come as a surprise to many of you.

Many of you are probably familiar with this idea

of securely attached people versus anxious attached people

versus avoidant attached people.

We’re going to touch on that a little bit.

But all of that has roots

in whether or not children and parents

formed healthy social bonds

or whether or not they had challenged social bonds.

Now, it’s clear from the scientific

and psychological literature

that just because you might’ve had a not so great

or even terrible social bond with a parent

or with some other caretaker or loved one as a child,

that doesn’t fate you to have poor social bonds as an adult.

There’s a lot of plasticity in the system,

meaning it can change.

It can rewire in response to experience.

And as we will soon discover,

there are specific components

within the neural circuits of your brain

that are responsible for social bonding

that allow you to play subjective labels

on why you are doing certain things

and to rewire the neural circuits for social bonding.

So we’re going to touch on all of that today.

But the important feature really to point out

is that we don’t have 12 different circuits

in the brain and body for different types of social bonds.

We have one, and there’s some universal features

that underlie all forms of social bonds.

So we’re going to start by exploring

what those neural circuits are.

And then we are going to see how they plug in

to different types of social bonds.

And then we are going to explore things like introversion,

extroversion, where you’re going to touch on a little bit

about things like trauma bonds, healthy bonds,

and various other aspects

of how humans can bond to one another.

And as you’ll soon discover,

there is a unique chemical signature

of all bonding of all kinds.

And you’re going to learn how to modulate

that chemical signature.

Before we talk about social bonding,

I want to talk about its mirror image,

which is lack of social bonding or social isolation.

Now, for better or for worse,

there is a tremendous literature

on the biology of social isolation

and all of the terrible things that happen

when animals or humans are socially isolated

at particular phases of life.

Now, for those of you that are introverts,

you are not necessarily damaging yourself

by deciding to spend less time with other people.

Many people like time alone.

I personally am an introvert.

I get a thrill out of spending time

with one or two close friends,

but I enjoy a lot of time by myself.

I like to socialize,

so I wouldn’t call myself an extreme introvert,

but I know there are some extreme introverts out there.

But when we talk about social isolation,

what we’re referring to is when animals or humans

are restricted from having the social contacts

that they would prefer to have.

And to just briefly touch on the major takeaways

from this literature,

which spans back a hundred years or more,

being socially isolated is stressful.

And one of the hallmark features of social isolation

is chronically elevated stress hormones,

like adrenaline, also called epinephrine,

like cortisol, a stress hormone that at healthy levels

is good for combating inflammation,

helps us have energy early in the day,

focus throughout the day.

But if cortisol is elevated for too long,

which is the consequence of social isolation,

the immune system suffers and other chemicals

start to be released in the brain and body

that are designed to motivate the organism,

animal or human, to seek out social bonds.

An example of one such chemical

is a peptide called tachykinin.

Tachykinin is present in flies, in mice, and in humans,

and under conditions of social isolation,

its levels go up.

And because of the brain areas

that contain receptors for tachykinin,

people start feeling very aggressive and irritable

after social isolation.

Now that should be a little bit counterintuitive to you.

You would think, oh, you know,

if you isolate an animal or human,

and then you give them the opportunity

for social interaction, they should behave very well.

They should be thrilled.

They’re finally getting the nourishment,

the social nourishment that they’ve been lacking for so long.

It turns out that’s not the case.

Chronic social isolation changes the nature

of the brain and body,

such that it makes social connection harder,

and it makes the person who’s been isolated irritable,

even aggressive with other people.

Now, I don’t want to go too deeply

into the biology of social isolation,

because it doesn’t actually afford us that much insight

into what healthy social bonding looks like.

So today, we’re going to focus more

on the functional biology,

dual meaning of the word functional,

as opposed to the pathology of social isolation.

However, I do want to point out that social isolation

starts to deteriorate certain aspects

of brain and body pretty quickly,

but how quickly depends, again,

on how introverted or extroverted somebody is.

So if you’re somebody who’s socially isolated

for the holidays, or has been socially isolated

for a period of time, and is craving social contact,

that is a healthy craving.

And as we’ll learn next,

the healthy craving for social contact

has a very specific brain circuit,

has a very specific neurochemical signature

associated with it, and has some remarkable features

that you can leverage in social contacts of all kinds.

I think some of the more important and exciting work

on social bonding comes from the laboratory of Kaye Tai.

Kaye is a professor at the Salk Institute

for Biological Studies.

She’s an investigator with the Howard Hughes

Medical Institute.

And in recent years, I would say in about the last five

or six years, her laboratory has made

a fundamental discovery as to why we seek out

and put so much effort into social bonds.

And the key discovery that she made

is that much like hunger, much like temperature,

much like thirst, we have brain circuits

that are devoted to what’s called a social homeostasis.

Many of you have probably heard about homeostasis before.

Homeostasis is the characteristic

of various biological circuits and even individual cells

to try and maintain a certain level.

It’s most easily thought of in the context of hunger.

If you don’t eat for a while, your drive to pursue food

and think about food and make food and spend money on food

and indeed to enjoy food goes up.

Whereas when you’re well-fed,

you don’t tend to seek out food with as much vigor

or as much intensity.

You wouldn’t invest as much time, effort, money, et cetera.

So homeostasis is the aspect of cells, tissues,

and organisms to seek some sort of balance

to regulate themselves.

In a crude way, you can think about the thermostat

on your home as a homeostatic circuit.

When the temperature goes up a little bit,

it cools things down to maintain a certain temperature.

When the room gets cold, it hits a certain level

and a sensor detects that, it clicks on,

and then the heat goes on

to maintain a certain set temperature.

So that’s a simple way of thinking about homeostasis.

Every homeostatic circuit has three components

or at least three.

One is a detector,

meaning the organism or the thermostat on your wall

has to have some way of detecting

what’s going on in the environment, all right?

In the context of social bonding,

whether or not you are interacting with others

and whether or not those interactions are going well.

So that has to be detected, that’s the first thing.

Then there has to be a control center,

that’s the second thing.

And the control center is the one

that makes the adjustments to,

in the case of social bonding,

to your behavior and to your psychology.

So you’ll soon learn that there are ways in which

the more time that you spend alone,

the more motivated you are to seek out

the pictures of faces,

the interactions with actual people,

physical contact, and so forth.

Now that might seem obvious to you,

but thanks to the work of Ketai and others,

it’s remarkable to learn

that there are specific brain centers

that are adjusting our psychology and biology

so that we seek out bonds more aggressively,

or maybe we don’t because we are perfectly sated

or satiated with respect to how much contact

we’ve had with other people.

Now, the third component of this homeostatic circuit

is the effector.

The effector is actually what drives

the behavioral response.

It’s what leads you to pick up your social media

and start scrolling.

It’s what leads you to text a friend.

It’s what leads you to call a friend or make plans

and what leads you to follow through on those plans.

So again, those three components are a detector,

a control center, and an effector.

And as you’ll soon learn,

the neural circuit that controls the social homeostasis

actually has a fourth component.

And that fourth component is one

that places subjective understanding

as to why you are doing what you are doing

and establishes your place in a hierarchy.

Now, I know the word hierarchy can be a little bit

of a barbed wire one because people immediately

start thinking about boss and subordinate

or in couples, a leader and a follower.

But when we talk about social hierarchies

in the context of human interactions,

social hierarchies are very plastic,

meaning in one setting, one person can be the leader.

In another setting, the other person can be the leader.

You probably have groups of friends or family members

where you’re constantly passing the baton

as to who’s going to drive,

who’s going to navigate,

who’s going to pick the restaurant,

who’s going to clear the dishes,

and who’s going to do certain activities and not others.

So hierarchies are very dynamic.

And as a consequence,

social bonding has to be very plastic and very fluid

so that you move from one environment to the next,

even with the same people,

you have to be able to make those adjustments.

And in the case of the social homeostasis circuit,

those adjustments are made by a particular brain structure.

I’ve talked about on this podcast before,

it’s called the prefrontal cortex.

It is the seat of our higher consciousness, if you will.

It’s what allows us to play subjective labels on things.

So we are not strictly input output.

We are not robotic.

Meaning if you go to dinner with a friend

and they are exceptional at choosing restaurants,

well, in the context of the social homeostasis circuit,

your prefrontal cortex would allow them

to pick the restaurant because basically

they are dominant over you in their capacity

to pick good restaurants, at least in this example.

Whereas as you leave that restaurant

and perhaps you are navigating

to where to get a drink after dinner

or where to walk through the city,

perhaps you have the better sense of direction.

And so then the social bonding has to be maintained

as you switch the hierarchy, okay?

So that’s the role of that fourth element,

the prefrontal cortex.

Now, I just briefly want to touch on some of the brain areas

that thanks to the work of K. Tai and others,

we now know underlie the detection, control and response.

I call them the detector, control center and effector

because inside of that description

isn’t just a bunch of names of neural structures.

There are also hints as to what the underlying

neurochemicals are.

And by understanding what the neurochemicals are,

you can start to think about tools that you can use

to form social bonds and maintain social bonds

in better, healthier ways.

So let’s talk about the detector first.

Now, keep in mind that you have your senses.

You have your vision, you have your hearing,

you have touch, you have smell, you have taste.

Sensation, as I’ve talked about many times before

on the podcast, but I’ll just remind you,

sensation is the conversion of physical stimuli

in the environment into electrical and chemical signals

in your nervous system.

The language of the nervous system is electrical

and chemical signals.

So photons of light are converted to electrical

and chemical signals.

Pressure on the skin or light touch on the skin

is converted into electrical and chemical signals

and so on and so forth.

So all of that, of course,

is flowing into the nervous system.

But the detector that underlies social homeostasis

involves mainly two structures.

One is called the ACC, the anterior cingulate cortex,

and the other is the BLA, basolateral amygdala.

And when you hear the word amygdala,

you’re probably thinking fear.

But today, as you’ll see,

the amygdala actually has many different sub-compartments

and components.

And there’s a reason why the basolateral amygdala,

which is associated with certain aspects

of aversive behaviors, meaning moving away

from certain types of things or interactions,

there’s a reason why the BLA is such an integral part

of the detector system.

And that’s because just as it’s important

to form healthy social bonds,

it’s vitally important to try and avoid

unhealthy social bonds.

And so the basolateral amygdala is mainly associated

with these aversive type responses

of just moving away from certain things.

The control center in the social homeostasis circuit

involves a brain area called the lateral hypothalamus

and the periventricular hypothalamus.

The lateral hypothalamus

and the periventricular hypothalamus contain neurons

that are able to access the hormone system

in order to influence the release of things like oxytocin,

which is a hormone neuropeptide.

It’s kind of part hormone, part neurotransmitter.

It’s kind of a hybrid.

We’re going to talk a lot about oxytocin today.

So we’ve got the ACC and the BLA.

These are areas that are mainly involved

in moving away from things, although also toward them.

That’s the detector.

Then we’ve got the control center,

which is in the hypothalamus.

And then there’s a very special and important area

associated with social bonding

that I want everyone to learn,

which is the dorsal raphe nucleus or DRN,

dorsal raphe nucleus.

The dorsal raphe nucleus is a small collection of neurons

in the midbrain.

So it’s deep in the brain.

And most of the time when you hear about raphe,

R-A-P-H-E, by the way, raphe nucleus,

you’re talking about serotonin.

Serotonin is a neuromodulator that is often associated

with feelings of satiety after eating, warmth,

basically satisfaction with things that you already have.

However, within this dorsal raphe nucleus,

there is a small subset of neurons that release dopamine.

Dopamine is a neuromodulator most often associated

with movement, craving, motivation, and desire.

And the neural circuits that are rich with dopamine

are things like the substantia nigra,

the mesolimbic dopamine system, the VTA,

the nucleus accumbens, et cetera.

Those names don’t have to mean anything to you.

However, this unique population of dopamine neurons

in the raphe is truly unique in that it’s responsible

for mediating what I’ve been calling social homeostasis.

It is the effector or the response

that mediates social homeostasis.

Now I haven’t told you exactly what social homeostasis is.

Social homeostasis, just like hunger,

is the process by which when you lack social interaction,

you start to crave it.

What’s very interesting about the fact

that there are dopamine neurons in this raphe structure

that is the effector for social homeostasis

is that what this means is that when you are not interacting

with people at a frequency or intensity

that is right for you, dopamine is released into the brain.

In most popular conversations about dopamine,

and even in scientific circles,

when you hear dopamine release,

you think about reward or feeling good

because indeed many behaviors

and drugs of abuse increase dopamine.

That’s one of the reasons

they have so much addictive potential.

However, dopamine is not associated with feeling good.

It is actually the neurochemical that’s responsible

for movement toward things that feel good.

So to zoom out and conceptualize what we have here,

we have a brain area that is a detector

that either will move us toward or away

from certain types of experiences or sensations.

We have a control center that is going to release

certain hormones and neuropeptides into our brain and blood,

depending on the sorts of interactions

that we happen to be having.

And we have this response system,

which is the dorsal raphe nucleus

that contains dopamine neurons.

And when we are not interacting with people

at the frequency or intensity that we crave,

dopamine is released,

and that dopamine causes us to seek out

social interactions of particular kinds.

So let’s talk about what social homeostasis is

and how it plays out.

And again, let’s use hunger as an example.

So let’s say you’re a person

who eats every three or four hours regularly.

So on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday,

you’re just accustomed to eating every three or four hours.

If just suddenly I steal your meal

out of the fridge at work, something I would not do,

but just for sake of mental experimentation,

that would probably cause you to go and seek out food

through some other route.

You might buy food, you’d probably be upset first,

but then you go buy food or replace the food

that you were going to eat.

You’d be hungry for that food.

And indeed, there are hormonal type mechanisms

and other mechanisms that when we eat regularly

and we predict that food is coming in,

we actually start secreting insulin,

which is for mobilizing blood sugar.

There are hormones in the bloodstream

that make us hungry on a regular clock-like schedule.

And you would seek out more food.

Similarly, if you’re somebody who is accustomed

to a lot of social interaction

and suddenly I take away that social interaction,

you would feel kind of let down.

You would crave a replacement social interaction.

You might be upset that you had a lunch date with a friend,

you’re used to having lunch with them every Wednesday,

and they cancel and you would crave the interaction.

Okay, this is called a pro-social craving.

And indeed, this is what you see in animals and humans.

If you, what’s called acutely isolate them,

which is just a fancy scientific word of saying,

deprive them of social interactions in a short-term basis,

they start engaging in pro-social behaviors.

They start texting other people,

they start seeking out social interactions

of different kinds.

And that makes perfect sense, right?

But thought of from a different side,

you could also imagine how, well,

if you’re getting a social interaction with somebody

on a daily or weekly basis,

and suddenly you remove that interaction,

well, then people might not care.

They might just think, well, I’ll get the interaction

tomorrow or the next day or the next day,

because they’re sated,

much in the same way that the person who eats very regularly

might say, well, I ate four hours ago

and I’ll eat eight hours later, no big deal.

But that’s not what happens.

There’s a prediction that we are going to have

certain types of interactions.

And when those interactions don’t happen,

we replace that lack of interaction with a drive

and a motivation to seek out social interaction.

And that drive and motivation is caused by,

or I should say is driven by dopamine release

from that dorsal raphe.

And so the takeaway is that when we lack social interaction

that we expect, we become pro-social.

However, if we are chronically socially isolated,

meaning we don’t have interactions with people

for a long time, we become actually more introverted.

This is separate from all of the tacky kind and stuff

that I talked about earlier,

or falling into states of chronic stress,

but it’s well-established now that in humans and in animals,

if you don’t give them enough social interaction,

they actually become antisocial.

And so this is actually a little bit like what one might see

with long-term fasting, okay?

I gave the example of eating every four hours.

Now let’s give the parallel example of somebody

who’s been fasting perhaps for two or three days.

If they are expecting to eat

and then the meal doesn’t arrive,

they are not necessarily going to immediately

try and seek out food.

And that’s a little bit counterintuitive.

You would have thought,

well, they haven’t eaten in a very long time.

They’re going to be very motivated to seek out food,

but no, they are accustomed to fasting.

Similarly, the social homeostasis circuit works in a way

such that when we don’t have social interactions

for a very long time, we start to lose our craving

for social interactions.

Let’s look at the social homeostasis circuit

through the lens of what’s commonly called introversion

and extroversion.

Now, typically when we hear about introverts,

we think about the quiet person at the party

or the person that doesn’t want to go out at all.

And we think about an extrovert as somebody

who’s really social, the so-called social butterfly,

who enjoys social interactions, is really chatty,

is kind of life of the party type person.

That’s the cliche or the kind of pop psychology cliche.

But actually in the psychology literature,

that’s not really the way it holds up.

Many people who appear introverted are actually extroverted.

The quiet person at a party could be an extrovert,

except that they just don’t talk very much.

The characteristic of an extrovert is somebody

that gets energy or feels good from social interactions.

They sort of get a lift.

And we can predict that that lift occurs

because of some release of dopamine

within their brain and body.

And indeed there’s evidence for that.

Neuroimaging studies support that.

Other forms of neurobiological analysis

support that as well.

We can also imagine that the person who’s talking a lot

is somebody who’s very extroverted.

But oftentimes people who talk a lot for their work

or they’re somebody who’s very social

when you interact with them,

that person gets back to their car

and is absolutely depleted and exhausted

by that interaction or also sorts of social interactions.

So we really can’t predict whether or not somebody

is an introvert or an extrovert

simply based on their behavior.

It’s really more of an internal subjective label.

However, if we look at introversion and extroversion

through this lens of the social homeostatic set point,

and we think about dopamine as this molecule

that drives motivation to seek out social interactions,

what we can reasonably assume is that introverts are people

that when they engage in certain forms

of social interaction,

either the amount of dopamine that’s released

is greater than it is in an extrovert.

That’s right, I said greater than it is in an extrovert.

And so they actually feel quite motivated

but also satisfied by very brief

or we could say sort of sparse social interactions.

They don’t need a lot of social engagement to feel sated.

Again, the parallel example would be hunger.

This would be somebody who doesn’t need to eat much

in order to feel satisfied.

Whereas the extrovert, we can reasonably assume

releases less dopamine

in response to an individual social interaction.

And so they need much more social interaction

in order to feel filled up by that interaction.

And indeed this is supported

by the neurobiological imaging studies.

So rather than think about introverts and extroverts

as chatty versus quiet,

it’s useful to think about people, maybe yourself,

maybe other people you know,

as how much social interaction they need

in order to bring this social homeostasis into balance.

Now there’s the fourth component

of this social homeostasis circuit that I mentioned before.

And that’s the prefrontal cortex.

The prefrontal cortex is involved in thinking

and planning and action.

And it has extensive connections

with areas of the brain like the hypothalamus,

which is responsible for a lot of motivated drives.

It also has connections

with the various reward centers of the brain.

And it can act as kind of an accelerator,

meaning it can encourage more electrical activity

of other brain centers

or as a break on those brain centers.

Really good example.

It’s kind of a trivial one

in the context of today’s discussion,

but it’s a concrete one.

So I’ll use it would be,

I know many people out there use cold showers

as a way to stimulate metabolism

and build up resilience and this sort of thing.

If you get into a very cold shower

and you feel as if you want to get out,

but you force yourself to stay in,

you’re forcing yourself to stay in

because your prefrontal cortex

is placing some subjective label on that experience.

Either you’re doing it for a certain benefit

or you’ve got a timer

and you’re using the timer as the regulator

of how long you’re going to stay in.

Basically you’re overriding reflexes.

And that’s the main function of the prefrontal cortex.

But as I mentioned earlier,

the prefrontal cortex components

that wire into the social homeostasis circuit

are responsible for evaluating

where you are in a given hierarchy.

And that affords you a ton of flexibility

in terms of the types of social interactions

that you can engage in

and whether or not you’re going to spend time

with certain people or not.

Whether or not you’re going to engage and then disengage.

What do I mean by this?

Well, let’s say you’re an extroverted person.

You’re somebody that likes a lot of social interaction

and you get a lot of dopamine release on whole

from a lot of social interactions.

So maybe one interaction with a teller at the supermarket

isn’t really going to give you much dopamine,

but going to a party will give you more dopamine.

And so you seek out these larger social interactions.

However, you might go to a party

where somebody says something

or you see somebody there that you’d much prefer not to see.

And therefore you decide to leave.

The deciding to leave is regulated

by that prefrontal cortex component.

So it’s important to understand

that just because there’s a homeostatic circuit

that involves areas like the amygdala and the hypothalamus

and these deep brain regions like the dorsal rafae,

as a human being,

you have flexibility over your social interactions.

And that flexibility arise from those prefrontal circuits.

So there’s a ton of subjective nature to it.

There’s a lot of context to it.

So while there are some predictable elements

of these circuits,

they are not simply what we would call plug and chug.

You have flexibility.

You are able to say, you know, I love parties,

but I really don’t want to go to that party

because so-and-so is there.

Or I very much don’t like going across town in traffic,

but I’m going to do it today

because a certain collection of people

or perhaps a certain individual

will be at that particular party.

And so the prefrontal cortex again

is what allows you that subjective ruling

or ruling over what would otherwise just be reflexes.

So now I’d like to drill a little bit deeper

into this incredible neural structure

that is the dorsal raphe nucleus

and this small collection of neurons,

the dopamine neurons of the dorsal raphe.

Because while it’s a small collection,

they are very powerful.

Loneliness has been defined by the great psychologist,

John Cacioppo, as the distress that results

from discrepancies between ideal

and perceived social relationships.

Let me repeat that.

Loneliness is not just being isolated.

Loneliness, as he defines it,

is the distress that results from discrepancies

between ideal and perceived social relationships.

It’s when we expect things to be one way

and they’re actually another way.

And which way we expect them to be

and which way they turn out, again, is highly subjective.

What you expect from friendships

and what other people expect from friendships

could be entirely different.

But the circuit that underlies friendship bonding

is exactly the same.

And it is this dorsal raphe nucleus

and the dopamine neurons in that nucleus

that underlie the bond that is social friendship

and all types of social bonds.

There’s a key finding in the literature.

The title of this paper is

Dorsal Raphe Dopamine Neurons Represent

the Experience of Social Isolation.

This is a paper from K. Tai’s lab.

The first author is Matthews,

Jillian Matthews, to be specific.

What they did is they were able to selectively activate

the dopamine neurons in the dorsal raphe nucleus.

And when they did that,

they induced a loneliness-like state.

Now, how did they know it was a loneliness-like state?

They knew because it motivated

the seeking out of social connections.

This is the kind of social hunger

that I was referring to before.

Whereas when the dopamine neurons of the dorsal raphe

are inhibited, meaning their activity is quieted,

that suppressed a loneliness state.

So that’s a little counterintuitive, right?

It’s a group of neurons that when activated

makes you feel lonely.

And when this brain area is not activated,

it suppresses loneliness.

But if you think about it,

that’s exactly the kind of circuit that you would want

in order to drive social behavior.

When you’re feeling lonely, dopamine is released

and it causes you to go out and seek social interactions.

When this brain area has enough social interactions,

and sort of a figure of speech,

brain areas don’t have enough social interactions,

but when enough social interactions have happened,

that the neurons in this brain area

shut down their production of dopamine,

well, the loneliness state turns off.

So what we think of as loneliness

as this big kind of dark cloud

or fog in our psychological landscape

boils down to a very small set of neurons

releasing a specific neurochemical for motivation.

And to me, this really changes the way

that we think about loneliness

and that we think about social interactions.

There’s so much subjective landscape

to loneliness and to social interactions.

But at the end of the day,

what it really is is that we are all social animals

to some extent or another.

And we all crave social interactions

to some extent or another,

although the extent will vary

depending on where you are

in the introversion, extroversion continuum.

And it is indeed a continuum.

Now, the other aspect of the study

that was really important

gets back to that issue of hierarchy and social rank.

What they found is that depending on

where you see yourself in the social rank,

the dopamine neurons in the RAFE

will lead to one consequence or another,

meaning moving toward social interactions

or moving away from them.

So the whole system is set up

so that you have a ton of flexibility

and control over social interactions.

So just a couple of key points

and actionable takeaways

based on the information I’ve offered up until now.

If you think of yourself as an introvert,

it’s very likely that you get a lot of dopamine

from a few or minimal social interactions.

Whereas if you’re an extrovert,

contrary to what you might think,

social interactions are not going to flood your system

with dopamine.

They actually are going to lead to less dopamine release

than it would for an introvert.

And therefore you’re going to need

a lot more social interactions

in order to feel filled up by those interactions.

Now, I’ve been drawing a lot of parallels

between this social seeking

or avoiding social isolation and hunger,

but is that really the case?

And could it be that there are actually interactions

between the different drives?

Meaning, could social isolation

or the desire to seek out social interactions

actually relate to the hunger system and vice versa?

And indeed the answer is yes.

We don’t have 50 different homeostatic systems

and 50 different neurochemicals

to underlie our drive to eat,

our drive for romantic interactions,

our drive for friendship interactions.

We have essentially one, maybe two,

and they all funnel into the same dopamine system.

And there’s a beautiful paper

that illustrates some of the crossover

between these different homeostatic drives.

The title of the paper is

Acute Social Isolation Evokes Mid-Brain Craving Responses

Similar to Hunger.

This is from Rebecca Saxe’s lab at MIT,

Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Dr. K. Tai is also an author on this paper.

The paper was published in Nature Neuroscience.

It’s a really terrific paper.

Just to briefly summarize what they did,

they took people that were categorized

as socially connected, healthy human adults.

So these are people that are used

to pretty frequent social interactions.

And they socially isolated them for about 10 hours.

And they had no opportunity to access social media,

email, fiction reading even,

and certainly didn’t have the opportunity

to interact with people face-to-face.

So what this did is it increased social craving,

both subjectively, the people said

that they were now craving social interactions.

And then they did brain imaging

in response to images of people,

people interacting, food, flowers,

other types of stimuli.

Some of the stimuli or these images,

we call them stimuli, but they’re images really,

had a lot of social engagement going on in them.

Others did not.

Some had a lot of faces showing, others did not.

And as you might suspect,

there was activation of many of the brain areas

that we’ve talked about earlier,

dorsal raphe nucleus and other brain areas

associated with dopaminergic neurons.

When the socially isolated people viewed social cues,

people interacting, faces, and so on,

and less so for things like flowers.

However, they also had increased responses

to images of food, which is interesting,

and actually is consistent with the literature

that when people are socially isolated,

they often will start eating more,

or they will change the nature of the foods that they eat.

Now, we think of that as comfort foods

or soothing oneself through eating

rather than social interaction as a kind of pathology.

But while it might not be healthy,

depending on the context and the person,

it’s really important to understand

that the reason that happens

is because we have a common circuit

and that the system, meaning the person,

is actually craving dopamine release.

They don’t consciously know this.

This is all subconsciously carried out,

but they’re craving dopamine release.

And if they can’t get it from social interactions

as they normally would, they’ll start seeking it from food.

Now, they did an important reverse experiment as well,

where they had subjects go on 10 hours of food fasting.

Now, these were not people that were familiar with fasting.

They weren’t doing intermittent fasting.

They were eating more typical meal schedules.

And so that created increased hunger, et cetera,

but it also increased their appetite, if you will,

for social interactions.

And so the important point here

is that there’s a common biology,

there’s a common circuitry

that underlies homeostatic craving of things

that maintain us as individuals and as a species.

And it really places social interactions

as right up there in the list of things

that we could consider so vital for our survival

and for our health.

Things like food, water, social interactions

are really sit within a top tier amongst each other.

And they use the same common circuitry,

dorsal raphe dopamine neurons,

in addition to other structures

in order to create this drive

to seek out certain types of stimuli.

Now, this is a very reductionist view of social bonding.

I realize that,

but it’s important to realize

that while we place all this subjective context,

oh, I miss this person,

or I really would like to avoid that person.

At the end of the day,

it really all funnels into a system

whereby a single neurochemical

is either being released and motivating us

to seek out more of a particular type of interaction

or is not released.

And therefore we are perfectly comfortable

staying exactly where we are.

As I say this, some of you are probably thinking,

oh, that’s probably what happens when you fall in love.

And indeed that’s the case.

When people enter romantic relationships

that to them are very satisfying,

there’s this period that the theory is

that it lasts anywhere from six days to six months.

Although some people report

that this feeling can last many, many years, even decades,

of just feeling completely filled up and sated

by the experience of being with that person.

So much so that cravings for food are reduced,

cravings for sleep are reduced.

Now there’s all sorts of activities

and things that go along with new romantic partnerships

that take up time that might get in the way

of things like sleep or things like food.

But the point is that dopamine is the final common pathway

by which we seek out things and we end up feeling

as if we are satisfied by certain types of interactions.

Now, similarly, if you’ve ever been isolated

for a long period of time,

your focus might’ve shifted to what you’re going to eat,

what you’re going to cook for dinner

in a much more heightened way.

The importance of those sensory stimuli

and those types of interactions,

and indeed the taste of food itself expands.

So normally when we are in social relationships

that are ones that are familiar to us,

we have a balance of these different drives.

But when one particular drive takes over

and we are very focused on it,

because they all funnel into the same circuitry,

there really isn’t the seeking out

of certain types of behaviors like food seeking

when we’re newly in love.

Now that doesn’t mean that food won’t taste good to us

and indeed there are experiments that have been done

where if people have just fallen in love,

the taste of a strawberry can just be incredible.

The other effect of dopamine is that it changes

the way that we interpret sensory stimuli.

Our detectors actually change when we are in heightened

states of dopaminergic activity or drive.

Basically what this means is that things seem better

than they would when we have less dopamine in our system.

The point here is that there’s a lot of crossover.

There’s a lot of meshing together

of different homeostatic drives,

that they don’t exist in separate channels.

And it’s only under conditions in which

one particular homeostatic drive

is kind of being played out to the extreme,

such as the example of falling in love,

that we tend to avoid or sort of overlook

the other homeostatic drives.

And that’s because simply we’re getting enough dopamine

we don’t need anymore.

Up until now, I’ve been focused on the organizational logic

of social bonding, which is really just nerd speak

for how is it that we form bonds, avoid bonds?

Why do people seek out more or fewer bonds

than others, et cetera?

Now I’d like to shift gears a bit and focus on

what are some things that we can do to encourage

the formation of healthy bonds?

There’s a beautiful study that was published in Cell Reports,

Cell Press Journal, excellent journal.

The title of this paper is

“‘Conscious Processing of Narrative Stimuli

Synchronizes Heart Rate Between Individuals.’”

I mentioned this on a previous podcast,

but I’d like to mention it again

and go into a little bit more depth

because it points to specific actionable items

that we can all use in order to enhance the quality

and depth of social bonds of all kinds.

Now, this study involved a very simple type of experiment.

They had people listen to a story.

Everybody in the study listened to the same story,

but they listened to that story at different times

and indeed in different locations.

So different people, same story.

And they measured things like heart rate,

they measured breathing, et cetera.

Now, what was the motivation for doing this?

Well, there’s a long standing literature

showing that our physiology,

things like our heart rate, our breathing,

our skin conductance, meaning the amount of sweating,

can be synchronized between individuals.

And that synchronization can occur

according to a variety of different things.

There’ve been studies that have people look at one another

and they look and actually see that their pupil size

of their eyes starts to synchronize.

People’s breathing can synchronize.

People’s body temperatures can even start to synchronize

or at least shifts in body temperature can synchronize.

One person gets cooler, the other person gets cooler.

A lot of this is subconscious.

Some of it can be detected by conscious cues

like flushing of the skin

or actually seeing someone’s pupils change.

But actually the pupil reflex is a really good example

whereby except for rare cases

and certain highly trained individuals,

most people can’t control their pupil reflexes

in a very deliberate way.

It’s truly a reflex.

It’s an autonomic reflex.

So there’s a lot of literature showing

that within small groups or two people,

these physiological signals can be synchronized.

What this study found was that when people listen

to the same story, but at different times,

their heart rates start to synchronize.

This is incredible because people are listening

to the story at different times,

but the gaps between their heartbeats

become very stereotyped

and map almost precisely onto one another.

That’s incredible.

Now, we also know from an extensive literature

that the quality and perceived depth

of a social bond correlates very strongly

with how much physiological synchronization there is

between individuals.

In other words, when your bodies feel the same,

you tend to feel more bonded to somebody else.

And so this whole thing is a rather circular argument.

When you feel closer to somebody else,

your physiology synchronize.

And the reverse is true as well.

When your physiologies are synchronized,

you feel closer to other people.

This is what I call the concert phenomenon.

If you ever go to see your favorite band

or you go to a concert that you particularly love,

you will often look over at somebody

and you’ll see them enjoying the same thing.

And they’re often in a similar state as you are.

Maybe the sort of like favorite song comes on

and you actually feel connected to that person.

You feel like you’re in,

obviously there’s a shared experience,

but there’s also a shared physiological response

to that experience.

And so this can happen in mass with large groups of people,

or it can happen just between two individuals.

And as the study points out,

it can actually happen between individuals

without them actually interacting with one another

when the story they are listening to is the anchor

or the driver of their physiology.

This really points to the fact that the body

and the brain are reciprocally connected.

Yes, indeed, what we think, what we hear, what we feel

drives our physiology, our heartbeat,

our respiration, et cetera.

But our heartbeat and respiration

also are influencing our state of mind.

And in this case,

it’s encouraging certain types of social bonds

when our heart rates are synchronized.

You can leverage this.

How can you leverage this?

Well, let’s take a upcoming example of the holidays.

There’s a sort of a joke.

I think it was Ram Dass, sort of Buddhist philosopher type

that said, if you think you’re enlightened,

go visit your parents.

And I think what he was referring to is that some people,

not all people have challenging relationships

with their parents.

We’re going to talk about child-parent attachment

and interactions in a few minutes,

but some people have a wonderful relationship

to both their parents and more power to them.

I think that’s wonderful.

We should all be so lucky.

Many people have challenged relationships

with their parents,

or they have a great relationship with their parents,

but their parents know,

or they know how to drive that dart

right into that particular soft piece

of psychological flesh by saying just the slightest thing,

or even by raising their eyebrow or rolling their eyes

or the tone in which they do something.

This is also true between siblings.

I think many of you can think of examples

where this is true.

Many people, when they interact with others,

expect that the mere interaction with the other person

is going to create the sense of bonding.

And often that is the case.

For instance, if people are involved in intimate disclosure,

if people enjoy each other’s company so much

that just the mere sight of somebody evokes great feelings

and it’s mutual, that often can happen.

But in many types of social interactions,

it’s not the direct interaction with that person

that makes us feel close to them,

but rather it’s shared experience.

And shared experience is shared physiology.

That’s the point I’m trying to make by way of this study

about conscious processing of narrative stimuli

synchronizes heart rate of different individuals.

So for instance, if you have a somewhat challenged

or a somewhat, let’s call it a slight friction

in getting close with somebody,

or it can be a challenging interaction,

oftentimes it’s very useful to focus outward

on some other common narrative, a movie.

Oftentimes people will watch a game together.

Actually, there’s a lot of critique

that people or families will focus outward too much

on external events.

But these external events can be observing the grandchild

and how wonderful they are,

or observing the meal and how wonderful it is.

Or as we commonly see in various traditions,

there’s a story that’s repeated each year.

Certainly in the upcoming holidays,

there’s Christmas stories, there are themes and traditions.

And those themes and traditions anchor

a number of different aspects of our psychology.

They’re really wonderful.

They thread through the ages really,

and allow us to link our own experiences

up with previous generations and experiences.

But in addition to that, they synchronize our physiologies.

And so sometimes it can be useful

rather than expecting others to shift our physiology

in the way that we wish,

or us shifting their physiologies in the way that we wish,

and then expecting some bond to mushroom out of that

in some beautiful way,

to focus on some external stimulus,

to focus on something that will synchronize

the physiologies of both people.

That can act as a bridge

in order to establish social bonds.

And this is not a hack or a workaround

for making terrible relationships good.

This is actually at the seat of what we come away

from a social interaction with as feeling,

wow, that was a really wonderful time.

Often a really wonderful time can be by virtue

of the specific things that were said,

or the specific things that one engaged in.

But more often than not,

the final common pathway we should say,

of great experiences was a great physiological experience

and a shared physiological experience.

I have a short anecdote that relates to this.

I have an older sibling,

and she used to say that when she was in college,

the best dates that she ever went on

were dates where she was asked to go out

and listen to music.

She pointed out, however,

that oftentimes the guys that would ask her out

would take her to jazz clubs.

She always had the theory

that they would ask her to jazz clubs

because at jazz clubs, typically you would sit down

and then she had to conclude that they couldn’t dance.

My sister likes to dance.

And so anytime someone actually had the nerve

to take her dancing,

those turned out to be particularly,

let’s just say satisfying dates and relationships.

At least they lasted longer.

That’s all I know about them.

That’s all I want to know about them.

She’s my sister after all.

But the theory behind whoever was asking her out

on these dates was the right one,

which is that if you want to bond with somebody,

you create a common physiological response

through a common and shared experience.

And that is often a good entryway

into establishing whether or not, it’s always a question,

whether or not there can be common physiological experience

between two individuals.

Up until now, we’ve been talking about social bonding

through the lens of neural circuits

that are already established.

However, early in the episode,

I mentioned that these very neural circuits

that are responsible for social bonding

in adult forms of attachment,

be it romantic or friendship or otherwise,

are actually established during development.

One of the more important and I think exciting areas

of early attachment as it relates to adult attachment

comes to us from the work of Alan Shor.

Alan Shor spelled A-L-L-A-N, Shor, S-C-H-O-R-E,

is a psychoanalyst who also has deep understanding

of neurobiology of attachment,

both in childhood and in adulthood.

And he’s focused a lot on differences

between right brain and left brain forms of attachment.

Now, in a early episode of the Huberman Lab podcast,

I touched into the fact that most of what’s discussed

in the general public and sort of pop psychology

and even in some neurobiology courses

about right brain versus left brain

and one side of the brain being more emotional

and the other side being more rational

is completely wrong, okay?

Most of what I see out there is actually backwards

to the way things actually work.

And while there is some,

what we call lateralization of function,

meaning certain brain functions are handled by neurons

on one side of the brain or the other,

the idea that one side of your brain is emotional

and the other side of your brain is rational

is just simply not true.

However, the work of Alan Shor

points to some very concrete neural circuits

that do have a lateralization bias,

meaning they are more right brain than left brain

or more left brain than right brain,

that underlie certain forms of attachment

between child and parent, in particular, child and mother,

and that these right brain isms, if you will,

and left brain isms for attachment

get played out again and again

in our forms of attachment as adults.

So I’d like to talk about that work briefly now

because I think it really points

to a number of important features of how we establish bonds

and the different routes to establishing bonds.

So within the field of psychoanalysis,

there’s a longstanding discussion, of course,

about the so-called unconscious or subconscious,

the things that we are not aware of.

And I think there’s growing evidence pointing to the fact

that at least one major component of the subconscious

or the unconscious is the so-called autonomic nervous system.

The autonomic nervous system

is the portion of our nervous system

that controls our reflexive breathing, our heart rate,

our skin conductance, meaning our sweating, pupil size.

It’s the aspect of our nervous system

that makes us more alert or more calm.

It’s the so-called sympathetic,

meaning for alertness or parasympathetic branch

of the autonomic nervous system,

parasympathetic for more calming responses.

Now, what Dr. Shore’s work

and the work of others is now showing

is that early infant parent,

in particular infant mother attachment,

involves a coordination or a synchronization

of these right brain circuits and these left brain circuits

as they relate, excuse me, to the autonomic nervous system.

How does this play out?

Well, it plays out where early on as an infant,

when you’re born, you’re truly helpless.

You can’t feed yourself.

You can’t warm yourself.

You can’t change yourself.

And you certainly can’t ambulate,

walk anywhere to get the things that you need.

All of those functions,

all of those needs rather,

are met by your primary caretaker.

Typically that’s the mother.

Fathers, of course, play a role also,

but because of breastfeeding or even bottle feeding,

typically mothers play a more prominent role.

I realize there are exceptions, but that’s the general rule.

There are now brain imaging studies

examining the brains of infants

and the brains of mothers as they interact

and showing that the physical contact between the two,

the breathing of the mother and child,

the heart rate of the mother and child,

and indeed the pupil size of the mother and child

are actually actively getting coordinated.

In other words, the mother is regulating

the infant’s autonomic nervous system, primarily,

and the infant is also regulating

the mother’s autonomic nervous system.

A small coo from a baby or a cry,

which is a stress cry from a baby,

will definitely regulate the autonomic nervous system

of the mother.

This whole right brain system

is directly tapped into the so-called oxytocin system.

And we’ll talk more about oxytocin in a moment.

Oxytocin, again, being this peptide hormone

that is involved in social bonds of all kinds,

but that at least in early childhood

is very closely associated with milk letdown

and milk production.

There’s actually a lot of stimulation

of oxytocin release in the mother by nursing itself.

So physical contact with the nipple

and by the contact of skin between baby and mother,

and there’s specificity there.

It’s not just any baby that can evoke

the most amount of oxytocin release from the mother.

However, there are examples where just holding a child

will evoke oxytocin release in the non-parent

or somebody other than the parent.

I think most people experience that.

That’s the new puppy or new baby phenomenon

because indeed puppies can evoke oxytocin release as well.

The point is not that oxytocin is only released

in response to the primary relationship

or the mother and their child,

but rather that the amount of oxytocin

scales with how closely related one is

to that particular child and vice versa.

So there’s oxytocin release occurring

in both the child and the mother.

So this right brain system

is an emotional but autonomic system.

It is below our conscious detection.

Now, as we get older,

there’s another system that starts to come into play

in parent-child interactions,

and this also comes into play in sibling interactions

and so forth, and that’s the left brain system

as described by Alan Shore.

Now, again, this isn’t about emotion versus rationality.

This is about autonomic

versus more conscious forms of bonding.

So on the left brain circuit side,

there is evidence for, based on neuroimaging studies,

but also animal studies to support the idea

that on the left brain side of things,

there is a processing more of narratives

that are very concrete, logical narratives, okay?

And again, I have to zoom out

and just really tamp down the idea

that it’s not that one side of the brain is emotional

and the other side is rational,

but rather that these two things are happening in parallel,

and that there’s a bit of a dominance

for the left brain circuitry

to be involved in the kinds of bonding

that are associated with prediction and reward.

So a good example would be reading to a child every night,

sitting there and reading.

You know, I can recall reading to my niece

and seeing her parents read to her,

and she had no clue whatsoever with what they were saying

because she, well, at least I don’t know,

but she certainly couldn’t speak,

but she liked looking at the pictures,

and it was a very predictable sort of interaction.

It was, okay, out come the books.

It was usually, here’s the bath,

then there’s the pajamas,

then there’s the lights go down,

then out comes the book,

and then there’s the interaction between parent and child,

which of course, usually also involves physical contact.

So it’s not like the right brain system

and the left brain system are operating separately,

they’re operating in parallel.

But that sort of prediction and reward,

which kids like to be read to,

is generally mediated by this left brain system.

And this carries on as children get older

and as parents take on and evolve their parenting roles.

It’s very apparent that healthy social bonding

between children and caretaker relies on the fact

that both this right brain system

and the left brain system are engaged,

that there’s a synchronization of autonomic function,

meaning a joining together in actual somatic feeling,

and that there’s a synchronization of experience

that’s more about some outward or external stimulus,

like reading a book or watching a show together,

or enjoying some common experience of a meal together.

And of course, as children get older,

they’re able to access more and more

cognitively sophisticated things.

You can watch a movie with them

and they’ll make predictions

about which characters are going to show up, for instance.

Or you can take them to a concert

and they can appreciate the concert or play in that concert

and they appreciate that they’re being appreciated.

Okay, so there are a million different,

there’s infinite number of examples here.

But the idea is that there are two parallel circuits

that are important for establishing bonds

and that this is set up very early on in childhood.

And that it’s neither emotional nor rational, but both.

Now, both of these circuits tap into the circuitry

that we talked about earlier,

where dopamine is released and molecules like serotonin,

which again is a neuromodulator more associated

with feelings of warmth, comfort, and satisfaction

with our immediate surroundings and possessions,

rather than seeking of things and motivation

and drive to go look for things,

as is the case with dopamine.

So there’s still interactions with those systems,

but the work of Alan Shore has stimulated a lot of interest

in what are these circuits

that underlie these autonomic bonding,

this matching of heart rate and breathing.

And what are the neural circuits that underlie this bonding

or this synchronization of experience

on the kind of left brain side?

And the reason I find this model so attractive

is that it’s very clear that healthy child-parent bonds

are established, but not by one or the other

of these right brain or left brain systems, but by both.

And there isn’t enough time to go into it right now,

but some of you are probably familiar

with this idea of anxious attached

versus avoidant attached versus

there’s a kind of dissociative attached model

of infant-parent bonding.

Just briefly, what’s becoming clear

from the neurobiological imaging studies

is that as people start to advance into adolescence

and adulthood and well into their elderly years,

the same circuits that were active

and established in childhood

are repurposed for other forms of attachment.

And that to have truly complete bonds

with other individuals,

but in particular with romantic partners,

it’s important that there be both synchronization

of physiology and synchronization of these more,

I guess we could call them more rational

or predictive type circuits.

So we can leverage this information.

We can start to think about what sorts of bonds

to us feel very enriching and very complete.

We know that we can have, for instance,

an emotional connection with somebody,

but we can also have a cognitive connection with somebody.

I have many colleagues with whom I have

deep intellectual connection and convergence with.

I wouldn’t say that I have deep emotional connection

with most of them.

A few of them, yes, but most of them, no.

Others in my life, for instance,

I have a deep emotional connection to,

but not a lot of deep cognitive connection to.

A good example would be the connection that I had

with my bulldog who unfortunately passed away,

but Costello, we had a very close emotional connection.

It was based on touch.

It was based on our walks.

It was based on fun.

It was very autonomic.

We rarely discussed, if ever, what we were doing.

We had a felt relationship

as opposed to a cognitive relationship.

And while I’m sort of half kidding about that as an example,

it’s a really good example.

It was a very real bond.

And in fact, just as a brief anecdote,

I can remember when Costello was a puppy

and I was entirely responsible for his wellbeing,

I, like any parent of any infant,

I lost my appetite for those few weeks

when I was house training him.

And I seemed to lose all ability

to process any cognitive information.

Now, I was also sleep deprived,

but I was entirely focused on the autonomic bond

that we were forming.

Now, thankfully, that eventually was established

pretty quickly.

Basically, I went on to just basically feed him,

walk him, and do everything for him.

And we had a wonderful relationship.

Now, it’s very clear that what we’re talking about here

is a form of empathy.

Empathy is the ability to feel,

or at least think we feel, what others feel.

Because again, as my colleague and the great bioengineer

and psychiatrist at Stanford, Carl Deisseroth, has said,

and he was a guest on this podcast,

we really don’t know how other people feel.

We just get the sense that perhaps

we are feeling the same thing

or we’re feeling something different,

and we infer or we project what they might be thinking.

Empathy is this sense that we are sensing

what other people are sensing, okay?

And there’s no real way to verify that,

except if you’re measuring physiologies,

you could get some insight into that.

In the clinical psychology

and in the neurobiological literature now,

it’s understood that there is both emotional empathy,

like actually feeling what somebody is feeling,

and what is now called cognitive empathy.

Cognitive empathy is this idea

that we both see and experience something the same way

at a mental level.

Emotional empathy is this idea that,

yes, I can feel what you feel

at a visceral, somatic, or autonomic level.

And it’s absolutely clear that strong social bonds

between children and caretaker

involve both emotional empathy, this autonomic function,

and cognitive empathy,

that there’s a mutual understanding

of how the other person feels,

and how the other person thinks

in order to be able to make predictions

about what they’re going to do.

It’s also very clear based on the emerging literature

that romantic relationships,

and to some extent friendships,

although friendships have been explored a bit less

in the literature,

that emotional empathy and cognitive empathy

are both required in order to establish

what we call a trusting social bond.

And there’s some beautiful experiments done

using neuroimaging of two individuals playing a trust game,

essentially a game where you’re trying to predict

the other person’s behavior,

whether or not they will behave in a trustworthy way.

And these experiments tend to use real money,

so there’s actually something at stake.

And you can more or less predict

whether or not somebody feels

a lot of trust for somebody else,

and whether or not they believe they will act

in a trustworthy manner

based on whether or not they have high levels

of both cognitive empathy and emotional empathy.

So for those of you that are seeking

to establish deeper bonds, or bonds of any kind,

it’s important that you think about synchronization

of bodily states, we talked about that earlier,

and synchronization of cognitive states.

Now that doesn’t mean you have to agree on everything.

In fact, oftentimes people who feel very close

to one another cognitively and emotionally

argue about all sorts of things

and disagree about a lot of things.

In fact, we probably know,

I certainly know people and couples

that seem to bond through arguing,

which is an interesting phenotype in itself.

But the point isn’t that there be total convergence

of opinion or stance,

but rather that we understand how the other feels

and we believe that they understand how we feel,

that we understand how the other person thinks,

and that they think that we understand how they think.

So it’s a reciprocal loop between two people

that involves this cognition and involves emotion,

and it’s grounded, as Dr. Shore has pointed out,

in our earliest forms of attachment.

And that makes perfect sense

because the same sorts of circuits

that are responsible for social homeostasis,

the kind of right brain and left brain circuits

that are responsible for infant mother attachment,

and then later for more intellectual

or predictive type attachments

between child and caregiver

are the exact same circuits that we superimpose

into all other types of relationships

throughout the rest of our life.

And I should just mention that for those of you

that might be thinking that you had

a less than satisfactory infant caretaker interaction

or form of attachment,

you are not alone.

And in fact, much of the work that Dr. Shore focuses on

is about how those early circumstances

can be understood and rewired

toward the development of healthy adult attachment.

And if you want to check out his work,

he’s actually got a few YouTube videos out there.

Again, it’s Alan Shore spelled S-C-H-O-R-E.

I’d love to get him as a guest on the podcast.

He also has a book, it’s called Right Brain Psychotherapy,

and it’s an excellent book.

It’s actually pretty accessible,

even if you don’t have a background

in biology or psychology.

I found it to be very interesting.

There are a lot of excellent references.

And again, if you’re listening, Dr. Shore,

you know Alan Shore.

We’d love to get you on the podcast.

One of the key themes to understand

about biological processes

is that they often work on short timescales

and longer timescales.

And up until now, we’ve mainly been talking

about the stuff that happens on short timescales.

So the kind of synchronization of heart rate

or activation of a given set of neurons

that dumps some dopamine and causes us

to seek out more social interaction or less, for instance.

But every biological circuit and function

needs to have longstanding effects as well.

And typically when you’re thinking about

longstanding effects in the brain and body,

you start looking towards the hormone system.

It’s not always the case, but more often than not,

neurotransmitters and neuromodulators are pretty quick,

whereas hormones have longer lasting effects.

In fact, a lot of hormones can actually travel

to the nucleus of a cell

and actually change which genes are expressed.

So if ever there was a hormone or hormone-like molecule

that’s associated with social bonding, it’s oxytocin.

And oxytocin has gotten a ton of interest

in the popular press.

I don’t know why that is,

but perhaps it’s because of all the incredible things

that oxytocin is associated with.

And it is indeed a lot of things.

So for instance, oxytocin is released in the brain

and binds to receptors in different locations in the body.

And the moment you hear different locations in the body,

you should think,

well, it’s going to have lots of different effects.

And indeed it does.

Oxytocin is involved in orgasm.

It’s involved in social recognition.

That’s right.

When you see people that you consider your people,

your team, your group, your friends, oxytocin is released.

Even if you don’t come into physical contact with them.

Oxytocin is also associated with pair bonding.

The feeling that they are your person

and that you are their person

is a common language people use.

It’s also associated with honesty.

Believe it or not, there are experiments that show

that if people receive oxytocin through an inhalation spray,

that they will be more honest

and forthcoming about certain things.

And the oxytocin system and variants in the oxytocin system

have also been associated with autism

and various autism spectrum disorders.

So there’s a huge range of behaviors that it’s involved in

because you have receptors for oxytocin

in lots of different brain structures

and areas of the body that do different things.

However, there’s some very consistent effects of oxytocin

that are worth just listing off.

And then I’m going to talk about two separate pathways

by which oxytocin can manifest its effects

and how you can actually regulate oxytocin

in ways that are interesting and perhaps useful as well.

First of all, oxytocin is involved

in the milk letdown reflex, lactation.

This makes perfect sense.

There needs to be a cue by which the suckling on the nipple

of the infant causes the release or letdown of milk

and milk letdown and lactation is controlled by prolactin,

another hormone, but also oxytocin.

Oxytocin is also involved in uterine contraction

during childbirth.

It’s involved in cervical dilation

to allow the baby to pass out of the birth canal.

So it’s involved in induction of breastfeeding and of labor,

which is remarkable and especially remarkable

given that in males, or at least in some male animals

and in some male humans, and I do want to say some,

and I’ll get back to this,

it can be involved in the erection response.

It can be involved in the orgasm response

in both males and females.

Although there, there’s a very interesting difference.

There’s a little bit of controversy about this,

but it does appear that in females,

sexual stimulation and orgasm

cause the release of oxytocin.

Whereas in males, sexual stimulation

does not cause the release of oxytocin,

but rather a different molecule, vasopressin,

is triggered by sexual stimulation,

but orgasm does trigger the release of oxytocin in males,

but with a delay of about 30 minutes.

Why that is and the specific function of that is not clear,

but it does seem that oxytocin is involved

in the sexual response in both males and females.

The main types of interactions

that release oxytocin at high levels are, first of all,

that the interaction be between individuals

that see each other as very closely associated, right?

So a infant and mother are very closely associated,

whether or not it’s an adopted infant or not.

Oftentimes they are in close contact.

Oftentimes they are from the very body of the other.

And so the amount or the amplitude of oxytocin release

tends to scale with how closely associated individuals are.

Just the sight of one’s baby or smell of one’s baby

can evoke oxytocin release and vice versa from the mother.

Physical contact, even more so.

In romantic partners, physical contact,

even the sight of a picture of a partner

can evoke oxytocin release and sexual desire, also trust.

So there’s this whole collection of psychological

and physiological things that are packaged

into the oxytocin system.

It’s not just a one-way system.

Now, a lot of people out there have written to me

asking about inhalant oxytocin,

asking whether or not that can actually increase

the depth or rate of pair bonding.

And there does seem to be some evidence for that.

Now, I think in most places, oxytocin is prescription,

although it might be over the counter in others.

I don’t know, you have to check where you are.

As far as I know, you can’t just go out

and buy oxytocin nasal spray, although you may be able to.

Forgive me, I’m naive to that point.

But it’s interesting to note that some drugs

that are being used in clinical trials

for things like trauma and are also used

in clinical therapeutic settings for increasing bonding,

in particular, MDMA, also called ecstasy,

increase dopamine and serotonin.

We know this.

Dopamine and serotonin have a vast number of effects

throughout the brain and body that I’ve talked about

some of them today and in other podcasts.

But one of the lesser appreciated effects of MDMA

is that it causes huge increases, massive increases

in the amount of oxytocin that’s released

into the brain and body.

And MDMA-assisted psychotherapy, while still illegal,

as far as I know, certainly in the United States,

but in most places throughout the world,

is being explored in clinical trials,

not just for trauma, not just for depression,

not just for eating disorders, but also for reestablishing

what seem to be fractured or challenged bonds

between romantic partners.

And while most of the attention has been focused

on the dopaminergic and serotonergic aspects

of the MDMA response, it’s clear to me,

based on my read of the literature,

that the enormously elevated oxytocin that occurs

during the consumption of MDMA is part of the reason

why people experience during the MDMA session

and post-MDMA session, a much greater degree

and depth of kinship or feeling of connection

with that person.

And it’s important to point out that that feeling

of connection is of the autonomic type

that I was referring to earlier, a la Alan Shor’s work.

That it’s not of the, oh, we think about things

the exact same way, we agree on everything now.

It’s more of that their physiologies are synchronized.

So much so that even in individuals within a couple

where one does a therapeutic session and the other does not,

they still both feel quite more bonded to the other.

Now, oftentimes in the clinical therapeutic setting,

both members of a couple or romantic partnership,

whatever that form it may take, are consuming MDMA

and then thereby experiencing elevated oxytocin

and this enhanced sense of bonding.

And again, it’s this autonomic bonding,

but it’s so powerful, meaning the oxytocin response

is so powerful that it doesn’t even require

that both individuals experience this huge inflection

in oxytocin and that’s because one person’s physiology

is influencing the other and oxytocin is this kind

of bridging signal that occurs in both nervous systems,

synchronizes things like heartbeat.

Obviously it’s associated with touch.

And so if people are touching or people are engaging

in the sorts of behaviors that I mentioned earlier

that can increase oxytocin further,

that’s going to further increase the depth of the bond.

But the point here is that there’s actually a hormonal glue

between individuals, okay?

Infant and mother, friends, teammates,

romantic partners, and so on.

And that hormonal glue is oxytocin.

Now, people vary in the extent to which they feel

or have the capacity to feel bonded to anyone.

And it is now generally understood

that some of that variation might depend on variations

in oxytocin receptors or what are called

gene polymorphisms for oxytocin.

Genes can have a number of different sequences in them.

There are nucleotide sequences.

We won’t go into genetics right now.

A’s and G’s and C’s and T’s in various combinations

are what make up the genes.

Genes are transcribed into RNA.

RNA is translated into proteins that affect cells, okay?

The oxytocin gene encodes for oxytocin

and variants in that gene change the amount

and function of oxytocin.

There’s a really interesting study

published just this last year in a relatively new journal.

The journal has a kind of a unusual name.

It’s Helion.

I think it’s Helion and not Helion,

but Helion, H-E-L-I-Y-O-N.

This is a cell press journal.

As far as I can tell, it’s a very solid journal.

Certainly the cell press label is very stringent.

And this paper is entitled

The Relation Between Oxytocin Receptor Gene Polymorphisms,

which just means changes in genes or variations in genes,

Adult Attachment and Instagram Sociability,

an Exploratory Analysis.

This is a really wild study, but I like the study.

It’s very thorough.

First author, last name Carollo, C-A-R-O-L-L-O.

And what they found was that by analyzing the genetics

of different individuals who are on social media

and looking at how many people those individuals follow

and how many people follow them,

and what they come up with

is a so-called social desirability index.

They were able to correlate in a very straightforward way

that people that carry certain variants

in the oxytocin and oxytocin receptor genes

actually seek out more online social Instagram interactions.

So some people I know, I won’t name their names,

only follow anywhere from zero to six accounts.

Other people follow thousands of accounts

and they take the ratio of how many accounts people follow

versus how many followers they have,

arguably not a perfect measure,

but a nice one in the sense that you can do this

in a completely unbiased way

with many, many thousands of subjects.

And then they were able to get genomic analysis

from a number of these subjects.

And it turns out that people who have, let’s say,

higher levels of oxytocin function

or potential levels of oxytocin function

actively seek out more social interactions on social media.

So this I think represents an important first

in the area of how social media and data from social media

are starting to merge with biological data

in terms of predicting how avidly people will seek out

social interactions of an online type.

And nowadays we hear a lot about how online we are connected

but we’re not really, what is it?

We’re communicating but we’re not connected

or the connections aren’t real.

I think we’re going to need to revisit that.

While I’m certainly a believer in the idea

that face-to-face communication

and common interactions with people

standing in the same space or playing sports together,

enjoying music together, enjoying meals together

is vitally important.

There’s an entire generation or several generations

of people that are coming up

who much of their social interaction has been online.

And if you think about it,

all of the things that we’ve spelled out earlier

about common mental narrative,

this left brain system a la Alan Shore

or autonomic bonding or synchronization of heartbeats

according to common stories,

all that is happening in online social interactions.

When a thousand of us look at the exact same Instagram post,

yes, we will have a thousand independent responses to that

but chances are many of us have a similar or same response

based on the data that we talked about earlier

in synchronization of heartbeats.

And so we are socially bonded with other people

through social media.

And it’s very apparent that the oxytocin system

is playing some role in that.

And this, if we zoom out, makes perfect sense

because again, dopamine, serotonin, prolactin, oxytocin,

none of these systems were placed in us

or are organized within us

in order to encourage specific

and only specific types of social interactions.

The one that we can say is absolutely critical

is the child-parent interaction, right?

Because children simply can’t take care of themselves.

They need a caretaker.

I should have said caretaker, not parent.

But infants, if they’re not taking care, will die.

But beyond that, we have evolved

or come to realize many different types

of social interactions.

And online interactions nowadays are very, very common.

I’m certainly involved in them.

I’m guessing you’re involved in them as well.

We’re involved in one right now, for example.

The oxytocin system is absolutely threaded through

and largely responsible

for those types of social bonds as well.

And incidentally, oxytocin is the name of the fifth song

on Billie Eilish’s second album, Happier Than Ever.

So we’ve covered a lot about the biology

and indeed the neural circuitry and neurochemistry

and neuroendocrinology of social bonding.

I want to make sure that I highlight the key features

that go into any and all of your social bonds.

First of all, all social bonds

have the potential to include both

what we called emotional empathy and cognitive empathy.

And so if you are interested in establishing

and deepening social bonds of any kind,

it’s important that you put some effort

toward this thing that we call emotional empathy,

which is really about sharing autonomic experience.

Now, depending on the relationship,

that will take on different contexts.

What’s appropriate in one type of bond

is not going to be appropriate in another type of bond.

Physical contact, for instance,

is appropriate for certain types of bonds

and not for others.

Nonetheless, emotional empathy

and the synchronization of autonomic function,

heart rate, breathing, et cetera,

can be best accomplished by paying attention

to external events in particular narrative, story, music,

and perhaps sports or other types of experience

as an external stimulus to drive synchrony

of those internal states.

The other aspect of forming deep bonds is cognitive empathy.

Again, cognitive empathy is not about agreeing on things

or viewing things the exact same way.

It’s about really gaining understanding

of how somebody else thinks about something,

really paying attention to that,

and then paying attention to how you think about

and feel about something.

So that’s what cognitive empathy is.

So emotional and cognitive empathy together

are what make up these really robust bonds of various kinds.

Now, we also talked about introversion and extroversion,

and I’d like to try and dismantle the common misperceptions

about introversion, extroversion,

because when we look at the neural circuitry, as you recall,

introverts are not people

that don’t like social interaction.

It’s just that they feel filled up or sated

by less social interaction than would be an extrovert.

And that’s because,

at least according to the social homeostasis circuit model,

they actually get more dopamine

from less social interaction, okay?

It’s like somebody who’s sated by less amount of food, okay?

It doesn’t mean they don’t have the same appetite.

It just means that they get more from less.

Whereas extroverts get less dopamine release

from an equivalent amount of social interaction.

And of course, these aren’t precise measurements,

but on the whole, extroverts need more social interaction,

more frequent, more long-lasting, et cetera,

in order to achieve that dopamine threshold.

Because again, dopamine is driving

that craving of social interaction.

And once it’s met,

then people don’t feel like

they have to seek social interaction as much.

So for those of you that feel

as if you’re an introvert or extrovert,

or that know introverts and extroverts,

it’s not about how verbal people are.

It’s not about how much

they seek out social interactions per se.

It’s about how much social interaction

is enough for the given person.

Now, the whole reason for providing this framework,

this biological circuitry, et cetera,

is not to simply put a reductionist view

on things that you already realized and knew,

but rather to give you some leverage points

to understand how is it that you form social bonds?

How is it that you might be challenged

in forming certain types of social bonds?

And to think about entry points

to both establishing and reinforcing social bonds

of different kinds.

Hopefully, it will also give you insight

into why breakups, whether it be between friendships

or romantic partners, can be so painful.

A breakup of any kind involves

both a breaking of that emotional empathy

and that cognitive empathy.

And indeed, it has a neurobiological

and hormonal underpinning, right?

We go into some sense, a social isolation,

even if we’re surrounded by other types of people.

If one of our major sources of oxytocin,

or one of our major sources of dopamine

suddenly is not around,

that is incredibly devastating to a nervous system.

And to borrow from the great psychologist

and neurobiologist, Lisa Feldman Barrett,

who says, you know, we are not just individuals,

we are nervous systems influencing other nervous systems,

and their nervous systems are influencing us,

I think that’s the right way to think about it.

So it should come as no surprise

that breakups of various kinds are very challenging,

regardless of what underlied that breakup,

whether or not somebody moving

or an actual decision of one person

to leave the relationship or both, et cetera.

On the more positive side, largely biological,

but to some extent, psychological view of social bonding

will also allow you to orient in this vast landscape

that we call social bonds,

to understand why it is perhaps

that you seek out so many online interactions.

Maybe you have the oxytocin polymorphism

that causes you to want more, follow more accounts,

or interact more with people and comment more,

respond to comments, who knows?

I’m also hoping that it will allow you to get a lens

into how you can strengthen the social bonds

that you want to strengthen

and to establish new social bonds

that you want to establish.

None of this is meant to manipulate or leverage social bonds

that wouldn’t otherwise form.

To the contrary, it’s about identifying

what are the specific routes

by which social bonds are created,

and allowing you, I hope, to work with people

that you feel challenged in forming social bonds with,

or maybe deciding to completely divorce

from those social bonds entirely,

because there’s absolutely no hope

of ever forming emotional or cognitive empathy.

I certainly acknowledge that that could be the case too.

So there’s both a light and a dark and a gray zone

to this entire thing that we call social bonding.

What is not graded, but is absolute, as they say,

is that social bonds are vitally important

to us as a species,

whether or not they are at a distance over social media,

whether or not they are in close proximity,

actual physical contact.

Today, what I’ve really tried to illustrate

is that there are a common set of biological,

neurochemical, and hormonal underpinnings

to what we call social bonding.

And so while it is complex and it is subjective,

it involves the hierarchies,

it involves our previous upbringing,

it involves our goals, et cetera,

it is not infinitely complex.

And in that sense, it is tractable.

Hopefully I’ve offered you some levers

or some entry points under which you can both understand

and move towards social bonds

that would be more satisfying and more gratifying for you.

That’s certainly one of the goals.

The other one is that hopefully if you’re a clinician

or simply the friend that people go to

or the family member that people go to

when they are challenged

through various challenges in social bonds,

that you can start to perhaps pass along

some of the information as a way of people understanding

what they’re going through as they are breaking up,

but also as they are falling in love,

as they are forming attachments,

and as they are being challenged with attachments.

That’s my hope.

And especially as you head into the holidays

and end of year,

but also as it continues into 2022,

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