Friendships Better Than Morphine

May 4, 2016

People with more friends have higher pain tolerance, Oxford University researchers have found.

Katerina Johnson, a doctoral student in the University’s Department of Experimental Psychology, was studying whether differences in our neurobiology may help explain why some of us have larger social networks than others.

She said: ‘I was particularly interested in a chemical in the brain called endorphin. Endorphins are part of our pain and pleasure circuitry — they’re our body’s natural painkillers and also give us feelings of pleasure.

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Previous studies have suggested that endorphins promote social bonding in both humans and other animals. One theory, known as ‘the brain opioid theory of social attachment’, is that social interactions trigger positive emotions when endorphin binds to opioid receptors in the brain. This gives us that feel-good factor that we get from seeing our friends.

‘To test this theory, we relied on the fact that endorphin has a powerful pain-killing effect — stronger even than morphine.’

The researchers therefore used pain tolerance as a way to assess the brain’s endorphin activity. If the theory was correct, people with larger social networks would have higher pain tolerance, and this was what their study found. Friendships may really help take the pain away!

Katerina commented: ‘These results are also interesting because recent research suggests that the endorphin system may be disrupted in psychological disorders such as depression. This may be part of the reason why depressed people often suffer from a lack of pleasure and become socially withdrawn.’

There were also two other findings of note. Both fitter people and those with higher reported stress levels tended to have smaller social networks.

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