Social proximity in friendships has a strong effect on emotions

Best friends are particularly valuable in stressful situations, even if they are not personally present. Carmen Morawetz from the Institute of Psychology and colleagues were able to prove this in an imaging study. The results, published in NeuroImage, show how the human brain can decrease negative emotions through social support.

Especially in times of pandemics, when social isolation and quarantine are the order of the day, many people are unable to meet their best friends in person and share their fears, feelings, and worries about everyday life. In the face of worldwide lockdowns, the study published by Univ. Prof. Carmen Morawetz in collaboration with colleagues from Freie Universität Berlin and the University of Melbourne in the journal NeuroImage gains particular relevance and comes to the following conclusion: uplifting messages presented together with a photo of a best friend have a very positive effect on the ability to deal with negative feelings. This is related to differential activation in a network of brain regions responsible for controlling emotions. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), it could be shown that certain brain regions are recruited more when social support is provided – no matter whether that support is provided by a friend or stranger – compared to when trying to control negative feelings alone.

The great power of social proximity

Emotions are controlled in the brain by an interplay of several interacting networks and attenuated when necessary. If we find ourselves in a stressful situation that may cause anxiety, we try to overcome the feeling of anxiety through various strategies. For example, by trying to interpret the situation as less negative, by inwardly encouraging ourselves, or by distracting ourselves mentally. “In this context, the lateral prefrontal cortex takes on a central role and suppresses responses in regions involved in emotion generation, such as the amygdala. This cognitive control of emotions can be improved by social support,” clarifies Univ. Prof. Carmen Morawetz, who established the Affective Neuroscience Lab at the University of Innsbruck, where she investigates the neural underpinnings of emotions. “We know from numerous other studies that people can cope better with emotions through social proximity,” she adds. The current study extends the previous literature, by showing that social support had an effect on the interaction of different brain regions during emotion regulation even when this support was only “virtual,” meaning the supportive person was not physically present in the room. In this context, brain activation is influenced by social proximity to the supporter. “This means that it makes a difference to our brain whether we receive help from people close to us, such as our best friend in this case, or someone unknown,” emphasizes Carmen Morawetz.

Findings particularly significant in pandemic

“Even though the data were collected before Corona, the findings are of great significance nowadays,” says the scientist. Especially in times of social distancing, adolescents and young adults, in particular, communicate via messenger apps, sharing their feelings and also seeking help and support in this way. The conditions that Carmen Morawetz created for her experiment are quite similar: During the fMRI experiment, negative images were presented and participants were instructed to down-regulate their feelings. Three conditions were implemented: Participants were instructed to attenuate their negative emotions (1) alone without help, (2) with the help of their best friend, or (3) with the help of a stranger. Social support was provided by an uplifting sentence along with a photo of the best friend or stranger. In the control condition, participants were asked to let their feelings flow and not regulate them. However, not only the fMRI experiments were elaborate, but also the preparations in which the actual social proximity of the participants and their friends was determined. “Even though our sample of 37 participants seems comparatively small, our results are transferable to the general public because we use very hard statistical criteria and analyses,” she says.

The amygdala differentiates between the support of a stranger and friend

In addition to the power of social proximity for emotion regulation ability, another important result has been revealed. Across all activated brain regions during emotion regulation, only one region demonstrated differential activation for the stranger and friend condition. “Though we investigated the whole neural network implicated in emotion regulation, we found that the amygdala was the only region that showed higher activation for the stranger compared to the friend condition.” explains Morawetz.

Taken together, the current results highlight that social proximity represents an important factor for the effective implementation of social support in emotionally challenging situations and that it has the potential to boost our emotion regulation ability. “In that sense, our results support the classic Beatles’ song: I get by with a little help from my friends.” summarizes the neuroscientist.

Publication: Carmen Morawetz, Stella Berboth, Stefan Bode: With a little help from my friends: the effect of social proximity on emotion regulation-related brain activity. In: NeuroImage, 30. Januar 2021 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuroimage.2021.117817

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