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
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
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 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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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,
I would hope that you would take this knowledge
and apply it in any of the ways
that you feel are meaningful and adaptive for you.
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