What is Social Neuroscience?

Social neuroscience is a cross-disciplinary area of research. It’s more of a hard science”; examining how genetic, cellular, hormonal, and neurologic pathways influence and mitigate human social and biological life impulses.

social neroscienceIn other words, social neuroscience tries to answer the question “what is the operating principle that binds people together in times of crisis?”

Here are 5 recent nuggets from the annals of social neuroscience that may help you both better manage COVID stress.

1. Most People Don’t Appreciate How Powerfully Kindness Impacts Our Nervous Systems

In 2014, Jamil Bhanji and Maurice Delgado undertook a complete review of the literature concerning the neurocircuitry of reward.

These literature reviews, (also called “Meta” studies) offer new insights after a critical mass of quality research has been achieved.

The big take away was that small gestures of kindness, praise, gratitude, and encouragement are enormously impactful, far more than we realized.

How Impactful?

The researchers discovered that your partner responds to social support from you in the same way they respond to powerful, non-social rewards such as food or money.

That’s ironic because Gottman describes these small acts of kindness as “deposits in your partner’s emotional bank account.” Now here comes social neuroscience describing the impact of small, frequents acts of kindness with an identical metaphor.

Kind words reduce our fear response. Softened start-ups and positive interactions increase the feeling of safety and security in our nervous system. This liberates our resilience and creativity, enhancing our ability to manage COVID stress.

As Gottman says, when love goes well, it’s a kind of magic…

2. Loneliness and Social Rejection are More Dangerous Now During COVID Stress

Recent research by Naomi Eisenberger ( 2013), and Meyer, Eisenberger, and Williams (2015) discovered that when your brain is experiencing loneliness or social isolation, it responds as if it were experiencing a physical threat.

Sidebar rant here. There are too many thought leaders who sing the praises of our magnificent human-computer.

I’m in the opposite camp.

I am forever reminding myself, (and anyone who’ll listen), that our brain doesn’t care if we are happy…It only cares that we are safe.

Creativity and intimacy are subordinated to safety…always.

Unless we take ourselves on, and live with a fierce intention, our brains will be content for us to be miserable…just as long as we feel “safe.” Being a an intentional human being, I find, is very hard work. Too often I’m just a monkey with a plan.

And our brains know that when we are lonely and isolated, we are unsafe. So that’s why the amygdala, dorsal medial prefrontal cortex, dorsal anterior cingulate, HPA Axis, and sympathetic nervous system get all fired up.

3. Feeling Understood is The Holy Grail of Social Support

I’m going to take you behind the curtain for a paragraph or two. Social neuroscience research is different from any other research that I’ve discussed in this blog. The insights we are getting from social neuroscience come from a cross-section of hard, brain science…and some of this research is unusual.

For example, Morelli, Torre, and Eisenberger (2014,) conducted a brain imaging experiment in which the study subjects were artificially induced into a state of feeling understood or not feeling understood.

Unlike therapists who will ask you “do you feel understood?” a social neuroscientist will electronically stimulate your ventral striatum if they want you to feel understood…or they will stimulate your dorsomedial prefrontal cortex and insula if they want you to not feel understood. That’s hard science vs. soft science.

Gottman was right again. What the social neuroscience told us was that the most powerful social support we can receive is being understood by our partner.

4. Some Of Us…Have Dropped the Ball…Here’s How to Pick it Back Up…


This is an area where many of us, (myself included), have dropped the ball.

It’s easy to become distracted by our shared predicament, but many of us have not shared our fears and feelings with the people who matter most to us in life.

Froma Walsh is perhaps our greatest living expert on family resilience. 

She is famous for describing a comprehensive framework for family resilience. This is how resilient families can better cope with COVID stress:

  • Find Meaning in Adversity.
  • Seek to Maintain a Positive Outlook.
  • Foster Spirituality and Transcendence.
  • Be Flexible.
  • Stay Connected.
  • Ask For Help When You Need it.
  • Give Help, and solve problems with your spouse collaboratively.
  • Work Toward Clarity and the greater good.
  • Express Emotions Openly.

5. Most People Don’t Appreciate How Powerfully Kindness Impacts Our Nervous System

This is not a typo… it’s the first secret and the last secret…

When I first talked about this, I discussed the incredible impact kind words have when we receive kindness and support from our partner. Now I want to discuss the science behind the power of kindness for the bestower.

For example, in 2009, Stephanie Brown and her research team studied over 3000 elderly couples where one spouse was in poor health.

They discovered that spouses who attended to their sick spouse at least 14 hours a week had a lower rate of mortality than spouses who were not caregivers.

Yes, it helps to receive kindness and social support…but it’s also beneficial to bestow kindness and support as well. The old maxim “kindness is its own reward” is applied social neuroscience.

“Hello babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. On the outside, babies, you’ve got a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies-“God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.”― Kurt Vonnegut

Social Forces are Always Shaping Our Behavior…Even During COVID Stress

A fascinating study by researchers Christakis & Fowler (2011), documented how social forces directly impact our behavior. Here are but a few of their findings:

  • If you sit next to a heavy eater in a restaurant, you will also eat more.
  • If your college roommate is studious…you also will hit the books more often.
  • Waitstaff that smiles more get bigger tips.
  • Think about your current friendship network. Research tells us that each one of your happy friends increases the likelihood that you will also be happy by 9%.
  • On the other hand, every unhappy friend decreases your odds of being happy by 7%
  • If you hear about a friend of a friend who quit smoking…the odds of your quitting just went up.

Social Neuroscience and COVID Stress…What Drives Our Behavior During Uncertain Times?

Our drive toward social connection hopefully results in our feeling understood and supported by others.

However, we now know these social connections are pervasive, and far more porous than we ever imagined. We are much more susceptible to social influence, both good and bad… than we realize.

We not only accept influence from our spouse, family, and friendship network, we also influence, (and are influenced by) people once…twice…and even further removed from our own immediate support system.

But providing meaningful social support to our spouse depends on our ability to rise above the noise and fear and be fully present to them…right here…right now.

What Social Neuroscience is Teaching Us About COVID Stress

COVID-stress, social-neuroscienceIn order to emerge from our shared predicament with our humanity intact, we need one other.

We all benefit from caring for others, and knowing that our spouse and family have our back as well.

Each of us has it within our power to change. If we change our thoughts, we can change the structure and function of our brains. The key is to take action.

Good, science-based couples therapy can help.

When we repeatedly activate under-utilized parts of our brain, we can intentionally shape the health and well-being of our intimate lives.

There is a myth that resilient people are unusual and rare. They are not. Resilient people are all around us (Masten, 2001). You can learn how to be more resilient with online couples therapy.

We tend to see COVID stress as the enemy, and as a result, we focus on avoiding or reducing COVID stress. But there’s another way to think about it…

Can COVID Stress Promote Healthy Growth?

Here is a new truth. There’s a difference between eustress and distress. When stress is well managed, it promotes healthy growth.

Without external challenges, the mind and body can become complacent. Social neuroscience will carefully study how we are adapting to the COVID pandemic, and I suspect that we will learn a great deal when this is all behind us.

However, our COVID stress is not going away. But if we can hold on and harness this stress, it will enhance our resilience as we ride out the historic months to come.

It’s Time For Science-Based Couples Therapy Online


Bhanji JP, Delgado MR. Perceived control influences neural responses to setbacks and promotes persistence. Neuron. 2014 Sep 17;83(6):1369-75. doi: 10.1016/j.neuron.2014.08.012. Epub 2014 Sep 4. PMID: 25199702; PMCID: PMC4169331.

Christakis, N. A., & Fowler, J.H., (2011). Connected: The Surprising power for Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives-How Your friend’s friends Affect Everything You Feel, Think, and Do. New York, NY: Little, Brown & Co.

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.

Masten CL, Morelli SA, Eisenberger NI. An fMRI investigation of empathy for ‘social pain’ and subsequent prosocial behavior. Neuroimage. 2011 Mar 1;55(1):381-8. doi: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2010.11.060. Epub 2010 Nov 28. PMID: 21122817.

Masten, A.S., (2001) Ordinary Magic: Resilience Processes in Development. American Psychologist, 56, 227-238.

Meghan L. Meyer, Kipling D. Williams, Naomi I. Eisenberger. Why Social Pain Can Live on: Different Neural Mechanisms Are Associated with Reliving Social and Physical Pain. Published: June 10, 2015. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0128294

Morelli S.A., Torre J.B., Eisenberger N.I. The neural bases of feeling understood and not understood. Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci. 2014 Dec;9(12):1890-6. doi: 10.1093/scan/nst191. Epub 2014 Jan 5. PMID: 24396002; PMCID: PMC4249470.

Ready for a change in your relationship?

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Daniel Dashnaw

Daniel is a Marriage and Family Therapist and the blog editor. He currently works with couples online and in person. He uses EFT, Gottman Method, Solution-focused and Developmental Models in his approaches. Daniel specializes in working with neurodiverse couples, couples that are recovering from an affair, and couples struggling with conflict avoidant and passive aggressive behavior patterns.

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