Why is it that our social relationships have such a profound impact on our emotional and physical well-being? Why does feeling connected to those we love feel so good, whereas feeling estranged from them cause so much pain? In my laboratory, we use behavioral, physiological, and neuroimaging techniques to understand how our need for social connection has left its mark on our minds, brains, and bodies. The following are some of the topics that we are currently investigating:
The Neural Basis of Social Rejection:
When people feel rejected or left out, they often describe their feelings with physical pain words, complaining of “hurt feelings” or “broken hearts.” Our research has shown that feeling socially excluded activates some of the same neural regions that are activated in response to physical pain, suggesting that social rejection may indeed be “painful.” To follow up on this research, we are currently examining the genetic determinants of rejection sensitivity as well as whether the fear of rejection relies on different neural circuitry than the experience of it.
The Neural Basis of Social Connection:
We all know the feeling that we have when we feel truly connected to someone else. However, we know very little about the neural circuitry that underlies this feeling or the physiological processes that accompany it. We are currently investigating the neural and physiological substrates associated with feeling “social warmth,” the positive, contented experiential state associated with being in the company of close others.
Social Support and Health:
Over the past several decades, researchers have repeatedly shown that having social support is beneficial for physical health whereas not having it increases the risk of morbidity and mortality. Although social support is a robust predictor of physical health, comparable to other risk factors such as smoking and high blood pressure, little is known about how social support influences health. In our lab, we use neuroimaging techniques to examine the neural processes that translate perceptions of social support or a lack thereof into the health outcomes that follow.
Eisenberger, N.I., Gable, S.L., & Lieberman, M.D. (2007). fMRI responses relate to differences in real-world social experience. Emotion, 7, 745-754.
Eisenberger, N.I., Way, B., Taylor, S.E., Welch, W.T., & Lieberman, M.D. (2007). Understanding genetic risk for aggression: Clues from the brain’s response to social exclusion. Biological Psychiatry, 61, 1100-1108.
Eisenberger, N.I., Taylor, S.E., Gable, S.L., Hilmert, C.J., & Lieberman, M.D. (2007). Neural pathways link social support to attenuated neuroendocrine stress responses. Neuroimage, 35, 1601-1612.
Eisenberger, N.I., Jarcho, J.M., Lieberman, M.D., & Naliboff, B. (2006). An experimental study of shared sensitivity to physical pain and social rejection. Pain, 126, 132-138.
Eisenberger, N.I. & Lieberman, M.D. (2004). Why rejection hurts: A common neural alarm system for physical and social pain. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 8, 294-300.
Eisenberger, N.I., Lieberman, M.D., & Williams, K.D. (2003). Does rejection hurt? An fMRI study of social exclusion. Science, 302, 290-292.