Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Biology of emotional linkages and merging of physiologies

Daniel Goleman offers a brief essay in the science section of the Oct. 10 New York Times on the biology of healing and emotional linkages between friends or married couples. The fact that mirroring systems (the subject of several previous posts in this blog) can rapidly synchronize people's posture, vocal pacing, movement, and emotional state can turn two discrete physiologies into a connected circuit that allows the biology of one person to influence that of the other. "This radically expands the scope of biology and neuroscience from focusing on a single body or brain to looking at the interplay between two at a time. In short, my hostility bumps up your blood pressure, your nurturing love lowers mine. Potentially, we are each other’s biological enemies or allies."

"There is now no doubt that this same connectivity can offer a biologically grounded emotional solace. Physical suffering aside, a healing presence can relieve emotional suffering. A case in point is a functional magnetic resonance imaging study of women awaiting an electric shock. When the women endured their apprehension alone, activity in neural regions that incite stress hormones and anxiety was heightened. As James A. Coan reported last year in an article in Psychophysiology, when a stranger held the subject’s hand as she waited, she found little relief. When her husband held her hand, she not only felt calm, but her brain circuitry quieted, revealing the biology of emotional rescue.

...But as all too many people with severe chronic diseases know, loved ones can disappear, leaving them to bear their difficulties in lonely isolation. Social rejection activates the very zones of the brain that generate, among other things, the sting of physical pain...a hospital patient’s family and friends help just by visiting, whether or not they quite know what to say."


  1. Thanks for this very illuminating posting. Do you think that a human can also mirror a virtual object - eg a game or simulation with which the human regularly interacts - so that the 'biology' of the virtual object influences that of the human in the ways you describe?

  2. Yes, humans (and particularly kids under 10 years of age) find it very easy to attribue human or animal characteristics to physical objects (animism). We make them extensions of our own ego and then by whether they are 'OK' or 'not OK'. Think about your nice new do you feel when it gets its first dent?

    In a way virtual games are like reading a book or watching a movie... when we are engaged with them, they spin us, make us feel like a character in their world. Our emotions are captive, and go up and down with the whole context.

  3. I wrote about his article, too. This "connectivity" would seem to be hardwired, one of the keys to learning, and a continuing need throughout our lives, on many levels. And of course, facilitated via mirror neurons. As Goleman points out, we already know that folks with strong social networks of family and friends live longer and do better with injury and illness. I think we are going to see some fascinating research come out of this area. Insights, such as these, into the biology of human interaction will give the research more momentum.