Date published: 3/3/2015

Why do our social relationships have such a profound impact on our well-being? Why does feeling connected to those we love feel so good, whereas feeling estranged from them causes so much pain? In my laboratory, we use behavioral, physiological, and neuroimaging techniques to answer these questions and to understand how our need for social connection has left its mark on our minds, our brains, and our bodies.

One of the first questions that we have tried to tackle in my lab is: “why does rejection hurt?” One clue comes from the language people use to describe rejection experiences—they use physical pain words to illustrate how they feel, complaining of ‘hurt feelings’ or ‘broken hearts.’ Based on these observations, we hypothesized that because of the importance of social connection for human survival, the physical pain system may have been co-opted by the social attachment system, borrowing the pain signal to identify and protect against broken social bonds. Along these lines, we have shown that experiences of social rejection activate neural regions known to process physical pain, highlighting an overlap in the neural regions that process physical pain and ‘social pain.’ We have also shown some surprising consequences of this overlap, including the finding that Tylenol, a physical pain reliever, can also reduce social pain.

At the same time, we have also been exploring the neural systems that support the pleasant experience of social connection. One question that we have been investigating is whether the neural systems involved in thermoregulation (the processes associated with maintaining our warm core body temperature; e.g., the motivation to approach warmth and the perceived pleasantness of warmth) were co-opted to maintain social warmth, the experience of feeling loved by and connected to others. This line of research has demonstrated that experiences of social warmth activate neural regions known to play a role in processing physical warmth and that exposing people to physically warm stimuli makes them feel more socially connected—highlighting an overlap between physical and social warmth as well.

Bringing both lines of research together, I am also very interested in using what we are learning about the neural correlates of social pain and social connection to better understand the strong links between social ties and health. Given that social ties are associated with better health, while social isolation is associated with health decrements, we have been examining whether the neural systems involved in processing social connection or social pain contribute to the physiological changes that link social ties with health or disease. Here, we have shown that individuals with greater pain-related neural activity in response to social rejection show greater increases in inflammatory responses and that individuals with strong social ties show reduced physiological responses to threat—both of which may ultimately have implications for health.

I’m originally from San Francisco, but did my undergraduate, graduate, and postdoctoral fellowship at UCLA. During my undergraduate years, I was inspired by studies highlighting the strong links between social support and health, and during graduate school, I became fascinated with trying to understand the strong emotional experiences associated with having or losing strong social ties. I joined the UCLA Department of Psychology in 2007.

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