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How social connections impact brain and mental health

Julia Park
friends, laughing

Humans are social creatures. Even those who prefer to spend their time alone are wired to connect with others in ways that have helped people survive for ages.

At a glance, this might seem like a no-brainer. It's easy to look back at history and see that our society has grown and evolved because of the relationships between people. But if we take a closer look, we realize that being social is a big part of what makes us human.

In today's world, where keeping up with social life can sometimes feel like a rollercoaster, it's important to understand how our connections with others affect our mental and brain health. Continue reading as we share how our brains are wired for social connection, the benefits of social support, and even how loneliness affects us and our well-being. Additionally, we’ll share how Muse helps you develop a mindfulness practice to manage stress and anxiety from social situations (don’t worry, we’ve all been there)!

Your brain is wired for social connection

Ever wonder why scrolling through your social media feed feels so good? It's because our brains crave connections and seek approval from others. Every time you get a like or comment, your brain releases a burst of feel-good chemicals that keep you coming back for more.

But this urge to connect isn't just a modern-day phenomenon or a sign of societal issues. It's a fundamental part of being human. Whether we're hanging out with friends, chatting online, or hitting up a club, these activities are more than just fun. They're deeply rooted in our evolutionary need for community involvement.

Evolution of the social brain

A striking difference appears when we compare the human brain to those of other species. Typically, brain size increases proportionally to body size in the animal kingdom. However, when we look at the brains of humans, our brains are far larger given the size of our bodies. 

According to the research of anthropologist Robin Dunbar, the strongest predictor of a species’ brain size is the size of its social group. Essentially, we have big brains to socialize.

Research has traced back the lineage of these big brains of ours, finding their first appearance in Homo heidelbergensis, which appeared just a few evolutionary steps before Homo sapiens. Interestingly enough, Homo heidelbergensis is also thought to be among the first groups of our ancestors to organize central campsites, hunt and work together, and bury their dead.

Being social is our default mode

The research most indicative of our inherently social nature comes from fMRI studies that explore brain activity. They’ve found that whenever we’re engaged in a task, our brain lights up with activity in the brain regions necessary for the task. However, when our brains are at rest, they fall into a configuration of activity called our “default network.”

According to Matthew Lieberman, director of UCLA’s Social Cognitive Neuroscience lab and author of Social: Why Our Brains are Wired to Connect, the activity and structure of our brains when our default network is activated looks remarkably similar to when we’re engaged in social thinking.

After reviewing over a thousand studies on social neuroscience and social psychology, Lieberman believes that “evolution has made a bet that the best thing for our brain to do in any spare moment is to get ready for what comes next in social terms.”

And indeed, that’s what seems to happen. In his research, Lieberman found that whenever we’re not engaged in an active task, our default is to begin thinking about other people. We think about their thoughts, their feelings, their likely actions, and goals. We also think about ourselves in relation to them.

friends, chatting

The evolutionary benefits of a social mind

As Lieberman put it so well, evolution has placed all our cards on social connection. The advantages of community and social connection can be found in how they impact our physical and mental health and perceived quality of life.

Studies show that people with meaningful and supportive relationships live longer, are more resilient to stress, less vulnerable to disease, and recover faster when they do get sick. 

In addition to these benefits, mindfulness wearables like Muse can enhance our mental health and resilience to stress. With EEG sensors that detect your brain activity, Muse provides real-time feedback as you practice mindfulness, helping you build stillness and calm. This support can further amplify the positive effects of social support on our overall well-being.

Empathy and pain

One study found that our capacity for empathy could actually impact physical pain. The study involved hyperscanning, in which the brain function and activity of two participants were recorded simultaneously.

Two participants were invited to participate in the experiment. One participant would receive a heat stimulus that felt like a burn while the other held their other hand. When the participants were strangers, researchers saw few effects. However, when the participants were a romantic couple, researchers found that their brains demonstrated similar brainwave patterns associated with empathy.

Even more impressive was that the greater the brain synchrony, the less pain the participant receiving the heat reported. This suggests that empathy, especially between a strong social connection, can reduce our experience of physical pain.

Social pain and physical pain

Inversely, research has found that social pain feels just as real as physical pain. A broken heart in brain activity reads just as painful as a broken leg. One study even found that taking pain medication (Tylenol) reduced the level of pain participants reported after experiencing rejection.

Additionally, fMRI scans found that the overlapping regions of the brain that activate with physical pain also activated with social pain, suggesting that emotional pain is every bit as real as physical pain.

Listen to this episode of the Untangle podcast, where we go deeper into the science of connection and why we should value our friendships.

Social connection in childhood is essential to resilience in adulthood

Not only does social connection predict our capacities as adults, but it’s also a core component of our psychological development as children.

Attachment theory

Attachment theory refers to how we relate to each other and is typically shaped by how our caregivers respond to us as children when we experience distress. 

When we as children are surrounded by responsive caregivers who provide attentive support, reassuring eye contact, gentle touch, and an affectionate voice, we tend to become resilient adults. We’re typically able to trust others and communicate more easily. When caregivers respond inconsistently or do not respond at all to a child’s distress, that child is more likely to experience poorer communication skills, difficulty trusting others, and increased anxiety.


The attentiveness of our caregivers plays a huge role in our development of self-regulation skills and empathy as adults. As babies, we’re born without the ability to self-regulate, which refers to managing our emotions, thoughts, and actions. Instead, we learn self-regulation through our caregivers in a process called co-regulation. 

When a baby is in distress and a caregiver provides soothing sounds, touch, and attention, they provide the fundamental tools for that child to deal with their emotions and experiences as an adult. When not provided with co-regulation, children may grow into adults who struggle with regulating their emotions and may experience heightened stress, anxiety, and poor relationships as a result.

lonely, woman

The cost of loneliness

Loneliness isn't just a personal struggle; it's a growing concern with serious implications for our health and happiness. The 2024 Muse Brain Health Report shows that loneliness is particularly prevalent among younger generations, with 43% of Gen-Zs and 40% of millennials feeling isolated. In contrast, only 19% of Boomers feel lonely regularly, with 69% reporting consistent happiness, likely due to many in this generation enjoying retirement.

However, loneliness extends beyond generational lines. The Silent Generation, or elders, also face significant loneliness, often due to social isolation and the loss of loved ones.

The situation is even more challenging for those with brain health issues, whether diagnosed or undiagnosed. Approximately 43% lack emotional support from family or housemates, with 60% feeling lonely most of the time. 

It’s clear that strong social connections are crucial for our mental and physical health, regardless of age or generation. Research shows that perceived loneliness and isolation is associated with:

  • A shorter life span*
  • Increased sensitivity to stress and a heightened stress response
  • Increased susceptibility to illness
  • Depressive behavior
  • Increased sleep issues and daytime fatigue
  • Increased focus on social information (especially negative information)
  • Decreased cognitive performance in perceptual speed, semantic memory, and visuospatial skills in older adults
  • General cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s in older adults

*When it comes to our life span, research has found that our perceived loneliness can have a significant effect. A meta-analysis of the research on the effects of perceived loneliness across 308,849 participants found that people with a strong support system had a 50% higher survival rate. They also found that loneliness was even worse for our health than smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

Check out this quick 1-minute video on how to combat loneliness below!

Social connection is important for your brain and mental health

Multiple studies suggest that who we are extends beyond the individual into our social groups, highlighting the enormous importance of prioritizing our relationships. Reconnecting with friends and enjoying yourself with loved ones is not a waste of time—it's essential to your health and well-being. 

At-home tools like Muse can be a valuable addition to your self-care routine if you ever become stressed and anxious about social gatherings. With 92% accuracy in detecting perceived stress and 87% accuracy in identifying anxiety, our brain-sensing headbands offer a way to stay connected to yourself while nurturing your connections with others. 

So, if you have the time, schedule a meet-up with your friends and loved ones. Consider incorporating Muse into your daily mindfulness practice for a more balanced and connected life.

friends, meditating

If you need a consistent schedule to help you get into your practice,
join Muse’s monthly meditation challenge. Meditate with hundreds of other Musers and explore various themes of meaningful connections, mindfulness, calm, and more.

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