Social Networks and Brain Networks

I have three brothers and two sisters. “Wasn’t it strange, growing up with so many siblings?” I’m often asked. Not at all – it was normal for me and we all got along well! I have fond memories of us growing up together; playing rounders and dodgeball outside, watching my brothers play video games, starting a pop group with my sister (called the Twosome Two).  

Throughout my life, my family has been a strong source of support for me. Being part of my family feels like I am part of a club with exclusive rewards. Obviously, it’s the same for other people in their family, but I feel like this is amplified for me due to the size of my immediate family network. We give each other both practical and emotional support – money, advice, consolation, sharing in each other’s achievements. We all want each other to do well in life, so we will help in whatever way we can. 

Unsurprisingly, social support is a strong predictor of psychological wellbeing [1]. As social animals, being part of a group and engaging in reciprocity is pivotal to surviving and thriving. Social groups give us access to resources that we wouldn’t otherwise have and provide emotional support during difficult times; a concept known as social capital [2]Those with more social connections have been found to live longer, have better mental health and are more resistant to illness and disease [3]But how can social connections ‘get under the skin’ to affect health? The mediating factor may be the role of the brain. 

According to a review by Eisenberger (2013), the benefits of receiving support works on two systems in the brain: by activating neural regions relating to safety and attenuating regions related to threat [3]. In other words, social support works by making us feel safe and buffering us against stress.  

The safety network is housed in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPFC) and the posterior cingulate cortex (PCC). These regions are involved in processing reward and actively inhibiting activity in threat-related regions. Essentially, the VMPFC is the “phew” centre of the brain, creating feelings of relief after a period of stress. 

Conversely, the threat reduction network contains the amygdala, dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (dACC), anterior insula (AI) and periaqueductal gray (PAG). These regions are involved in processing threat and pain. As mentioned before, the VMPFC actively reduces activity in these areas in response to social support, reducing threat and fear. 

Experimental studies, where people are provided with social support during a social exclusion task, have found increased activity in the VMPFC and PCC, and decreases in activity such as the amygdala and insula (for the specific studies, see reference 3)This is true even when people are just shown pictures of loved ones; highlighting that the representation and perception of a relationship with a support figure is enough to elicit this salutary activity. 

Interestingly, studies where people report their general levels of social support only tend to find support for attenuation in threat-related areas in stressful tasks, not the safety activity. It may be that the top-down VMPFC activity only becomes online when a specific person is envisioned or a person is actively present in a situation, compared to reporting general feelings of social support. The latter of which may be influenced by other cognitive, personality or emotional factors. For example, people who have more symptoms of depression may erroneously perceive a lack of social support in their lives due to a clouded view of the world. It may also be more related to a person’s attachment style, which is thought to be shaped in early childhood. Probing the exact conditions for activation of these hypothesised social support networks is a next step for future research.  

Additionally, the nature of social support is changing with the advent of social media, with online communication replacing much of the physical contact that we have with people in our daily lives. This provides huge benefits, such as being able to contact loved ones who are far away almost instantaneously. But it is still unclear whether virtual support provides the same benefits of physically interacting with someone, and whether it affects the same neural systems mentioned earlier. Thus, another avenue for investigation could be the importance of a physical presence of social support compared to virtual support in the differences in outcomes for safety-related VMPFC activity. 

Ultimately, changes to our social landscape are inevitable and largely welcomed. However, it is important for us to understand the neural mechanisms of social connections, so that the benefits of social connections can prevail with the advancing times. 

  1. Portela, M., Neira, I., & del Mar Salinas-Jiménez, M. (2013). Social capital and subjective wellbeing in Europe: A new approach on social capital. Social Indicators Research114(2), 493-511.  
  2. Kawachi, I., & Berkman, L. (2014). Social cohesion, social capital and health. In: Berkman, L., & Kawachi I. (eds). Social Epidemiology (pp. 174-90) Oxford: Oxford University Press. 
  3. Eisenberger, N. I. (2013). An empirical review of the neural underpinnings of receiving and giving social support: implications for health. Psychosomatic Medicine75(6), 545-556. doi  

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