When my daughter’s college abruptly switched to online learning in March, she said goodbye to her campus for an unknown length of time and to a new friend who had quickly become important. This forced separation could have sounded the death knell for their friendship, but so far, time and distance do not seem to diminish it. In fact, these challenges could make him even stronger.
This is an observation the Roman poet Sextus Propertius made about 2,000 years ago, when he included an early version of the adage “Absence makes the heart more loving” in one of his poems. . These days, as we wait to reunite with our family and friends, many of us may feel a pang in our hearts. Week after week, our affection for distant loved ones seems to expand. But does scientific research prove the saying to be true?
Prairie voles are one of the very few monogamous mammals like humans, so Zoe Donaldson, assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Colorado at Boulder, turned to them for clues as to how whose desire for loved ones also works in people. .
She co-wrote an article that asked, “What is it that really holds bonds together over time?” What makes us come back for more? she says. “And a big part of it is this desire to come together.”
His team examined the brains of 17 voles (enough animals to be statistically valid). At the start of the experiment, a vole had the choice of running towards one of two unknown voles of the opposite sex. The researchers then made one of these unknown voles his companion. A few days later, and again two weeks after that, he had the choice of running towards this mate or another unknown vole.
The researchers zoned on the part of the brain called the nucleus accumbens. “It’s a part of the brain that lights up when you’re happy, when you’re having pleasure,” says Donaldson. “It also lights up when we are with family members or if we are holding hands with our partners.” For example, one study saw such activity when 17 intensely in love looked at photos of their partners.
In Donaldson’s experiment, each vole in question had some degree of activity in that region of the brain when choosing between two unknown voles. A few days after one of these voles became his mate, however, more cells activated when he was about to run towards that mate rather than the unknown vole. And two weeks later – when the mating voles had even more time to bind – the group of activated cells grew even larger.
“These cells might say, ‘You should find your partner,’ Donaldson says. This brain activity ‘makes them want to be with their partners, probably because it’s rewarding.’ With the human brain supposed to react in the same way, it suggests that we are also very biologically motivated to get back to the people who matter.
Donaldson illustrates this with an anecdote about two of his lab students, who finally saw each other after the local stay-at-home order was lifted. “Without even thinking about it, they walked through the store to hug each other, which you absolutely aren’t supposed to do,” she says. “But the way they both explained it was that they just couldn’t help themselves, they were so excited to see each other.”
Why does our brain make sure we’re attracted to certain people? Because we rely on others throughout our lives: from feeding and protecting infants to supporting when we’re older, says Naomi Eisenberger, professor of social psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles, as well as director of its social and emotional program. Neuroscience laboratory. “And so, we come with these built-in mechanisms to make sure that we maintain the social connection and avoid social isolation,” she says.
Eisenberger co-authored a study in humans that focused on a larger region of the brain called the ventral striatum, which is also linked to rewards. Participants reported how lonely they felt, if at all. They then viewed images of loved ones or strangers while being scanned by functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Thirty-one people underwent this process, considered a reasonable sample size for expensive fMRI studies.
“Our lonely subjects showed more activity in reward-related regions when looking at loved ones” than when looking at strangers, Eisenberger explains. This contrasts with less lonely people, whose brains showed roughly the same amount of activity no matter which photo they looked at. “It fits with the idea that when you feel disconnected from others, there is more reward associated with seeing those others again.”
Another study, currently under peer review, looked at another area of the brain, the substantia nigra, which is also important for reward and motivation. This time, the researchers compared the cravings for social interaction with the cravings for food.
Forty participants spent 10 hours either isolated without social interaction (in 2019, before the pandemic) or on an empty stomach. The researchers then used fMRI to scan participants’ brains as they viewed photos of their social activities and favorite foods. After the fast, the area showed increased activation when viewing images of food. After isolation, he reacted to social images.
These results demonstrate that a lack of social interaction creates a hunger-like urge and a shared neural signature. Livia Tomova is the co-author of the study and a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She says: “If ever one day being alone makes our brain react as if we have been fasting all day, this indicates that our brain is very sensitive to the experience of being alone.”
Additional studies indicate that people who are geographically distant may try harder than others to maintain their connections.
A study focused on 63 young couples. Those with long distance relationships discussed deeper issues with each other and had more meaningful interactions than geographically close couples.
Another study looked at the phone calls of about 400,000 people in an unidentified European country for seven months. If the people who lived far from each other hadn’t spoken for a while, their next phone call would take longer. Researchers say this indicates that people generally want to invest more in a relationship when there is a risk that time and distance will start to crack.
What can we do to invest in the relationships that are important to us and go through time until we can see our loved ones again? The researchers had some thoughts on this.
Donaldson encourages these missing loved ones to “go ahead and commit to what we can do, which is virtual encounters and things like that” even though “it is a weak substitute for our normal interactions” . Eisenberger suggests doing something nice for someone else. It “seems to have a stress-reducing effect and can make us feel more connected to others,” she says.
And Tomova advises using social media with caution. “If you engage with social media in a very passive way – you just scroll through other people’s photos – it seems to make you feel worse afterwards,” she says, citing one study in particular. However, actively engaging with others, such as chatting on social media or through a messaging app, can help meet your need for personal contact.
My daughter and her college friend did this using Snapchat as the primary way to stay in touch. For them, like so many others, only time will tell if the separation caused by the pandemic has strengthened their bond.