The Neuroscience of Belonging

The brain has evolved to respond in predictable ways to threats in the physical environment. Similarly, the brain is attuned to identify and reinforce behaviours that benefit our survival. These threat and reward-related circuits are well described. For example the amygdala, the most well studies threat-related brain region, responds to universally threatening stimuli such as a threat of pain or an approaching tarantula.

But what about more complex, subjective, social stimuli? For example, when a person feels rejected by a friend or partner, what happens in the brain? It is well established that people who have satisfying social relationships and feel cared for and loved by others are more physically healthy and live longer than those who feel socially isolated. In fact, feeling socially connected is protective against a range of conditions such as heart disease and cancer. Despite this, the way perceptions of social connectedness modulate physical health is not known.

A recent research review, published in Nature Neuroscience, suggests that social disconnection may be processed in the brain in the same way as the threat of physical harm. That is, when a person perceives that their relationship with another person is under threat, the brain responds by activating a basic ‘alarm system’. This alarm system sets in motion a range of neurophysiological processes that are the same, whether the threat is physical and in the environment, or perceived and based on individual judgment of a threat to social connectedness. This alarm system includes the amygdala, the anterior cingulate cor­tex and the insula, all of which are known for their roles in both threat- and pain-related processing.

What happens when this alarm system is activated? The sympathetic nervous system and hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis go into overdrive, increasing inflammation and a compromising the immune system. These processes contribute to many diseases such as diabetes, those of aging, and cancer. New evidence suggests that these responses occur in response to perceived social isolation as well to a physical threat of harm.

On the other hand, how does social connectedness improve health? Research shows that being reminded of your social connections activates basic reward-related circuits that are also activated when learning to respond to beneficial environmental cues. Researchers use the example of seeing a picture of a highly supportive romantic partner; when viewing this picture during painful stimuli, people perceive and report less pain. This simultaneously activates reward-related brain regions including the ventromedial prefrontal cortex and the posterior cingulate. This may be the key to how feeling socially connected can lead to better health. Activation of these brain regions is thought to cause the release stress-reducing neuropeptides such as opiods and oxytocin, which boost the immune system and protect the body from damage due to inflammation

This is a new and exciting area of research, and suggests what many people have intuitively known for many years: belonging and feeling cared for are critical to good health.


Eisenberger NI, & Cole SW (2012). Social neuroscience and health: neurophysiological mechanisms linking social ties with physical health. Nature neuroscience, 15 (5), 669-74 PMID: 22504347

Image via Andrey Pavlov / Shutterstock.

  • Richard Kensinger, MSW

    Very nicely articulated article! It fits in well with a psychodynamic perspective in regards to split object representations which I artculated earlier in an article available via BB. And it reveals the psychodynamic version of the 5 variations attachment.

    Again, my gratitude to Dr. Bohanna.


  • Very interesting article indeed. As someone who supports families who have lived with abuse & trauma it emphasises the need to teach children and their parents to develop better social skills post abuse.

    I often see them with difficulties building and maintaining friendships as complex attachment patterns inhibit this process for them. Thank you for this information as I will quote from it to back up my never-ending quest to secure the right kind of support for these families.

    Did pose the question to me of where the ‘befriending’ survival instinct as a means of getting our needs met fits into this as well?

  • Richard Kensinger, MSW

    In regards to essential needs, A Maslow presents a solid paradigm in this regard, often presented as a pyramid. At the base are esential survival needs. Next level up is psychosocial safety & security; then affection & affiliation. Next to the top is approval & recognition from others. At the very top is self-actualization. I consider this as our optimal phenotype. Essentially it is being the best person we can be in this world.

    From the evolutionary perspective, differentiating ” friend form foe” is critical!


    • Thanks Richard, good old Maslow so useful in so many contexts.

      I was talking in the context of my passion which is understanding how parenting is affected by living with repeated trauma like domestic violence and abuse. In this instance survival can be about ‘befriending’ the aggressor to ensure better outcomes. This is something inbuilt but used most readily by women and children in order to survive as genrerally being less physically able than a stronger male to run or fight this becomes embedded for many as the best strategy.

      In my work in domestic violence and abuse this has often highlighted the confusion around why a woman would use this approach but it makes great sense as a survival strategy, rather like Stockholm Syndrome.

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India Bohanna, PhD

India Bohanna, PhD, earned her Bachelor of Science from Monash University and Doctor of Philosophy from University of Melbourne. She is currently a mental health research fellow.

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