Friends 'better than morphine': Larger social networks release more pain-killing endorphin

April 28, 2016
Credit: Vilem Skarolek/public domain

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. 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 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 This may be part of the reason why depressed people often suffer from a lack of pleasure and become socially withdrawn."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.

Katerina explained: "It may simply be a question of time—individuals that spend more time exercising have less time to see their friends. However, there may be a more interesting explanation—since both physical and social activities promote endorphin release, perhaps some people use exercise as an alternative means to get their 'endorphin rush' rather than socialising. The finding relating to stress may indicate that larger social networks help people to manage stress better, or it may be that stress or its causes mean people have less time for social activity, shrinking their network.

"Studies suggest that the quantity and quality of our social relationships affect our physical and mental health and may even be a factor determining how long we live. Therefore, understanding why individuals have different social networks sizes and the possible neurobiological mechanisms involved is an important research topic. As a species, we've evolved to thrive in a rich social environment but in this digital era, deficiencies in our social interactions may be one of the overlooked factors contributing to the declining health of our modern society."

The study is published today in the Scientific Reports.

Explore further: The science of hugs and why they (mostly) feel so good

More information: Scientific Reports, DOI: 10.1038/srep25267

Related Stories

The science of hugs and why they (mostly) feel so good

April 12, 2016

"Hugging it out" is often touted as a good way to solve a problem. Now a group of Europeans have decided that that'sall Britons need to convince them to stay in the EU. Their #hugabrit campaign, in which people send in pictures ...

Meaning of brain scans for 'pain' called into question

April 25, 2016

Patterns of brain activity thought to show pain responses have been called into question after researchers from UCL and the University of Reading saw such patterns in rare patients born without a sense of pain.

Recommended for you

How self-regulation can help young people overcome setbacks

May 29, 2017

Failing an exam at school, getting rejected for a job or being screamed at by your teacher or superior are only a few examples of situations that may cause despair, disappointment or a sense of failure. Unfortunately, such ...

Game study not playing around with PTSD relief

May 26, 2017

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) patients wrestling with one of its main symptoms may find long-term relief beyond medication thanks to the work of a Western researcher.

3 comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

jiridrozd
not rated yet Apr 28, 2016
It seems as if they presumed people have a social network as large or small as they wish. As if joining a social activity was a personal one-sided choice. Which is definitely not how it works in reality. There is a fundamental element of needing the society, somebody else who wants to do the same particular thing with you in particular, and that is obviously why some people's social circle is smaller than they would have if their own internal state was the only factor. That is also a common reason why some people don't have any social circle - it's not that they wouldn't want (although there are also people who don't want in deed), it's that they are not accepted. Well, in that case, the study makes no sense.
julianpenrod
5 / 5 (1) Apr 28, 2016
The fact is, like disease and even death, pain is a punishment from God for living wrongly. But, to allow someone to work their way out of punishment without being distracted, God allows methods of ameliorating the condition. That's why He allows things like medicine and why friends can help limit pain. But that means that all those legislating for "medical" marijuana and the ability to commit suicide if they accidentally slam a drawer on their fingers don't have things like friends to moderate pain. Those with serious diseases that don't respond to medication certainly seem to deep in malignance that they cannot summon the means of getting themselves out, no matter how much they "concentrate". In the end, though, it appears that those calling for "medical" marijuana and convenient suicide are admitting they are eminently antisocial, incapable of having normal, healthy relationships with anyone. Arrested development degenerates, freaks and failures.
Telekinetic
5 / 5 (1) Apr 28, 2016
Christ, Penrod- you prove once again that your brand of Christianity- professing love, compassion, and forgiveness is complete hypocrisy. You're the most judgmental, heartless creep there is- almost Satanic if there really was such an entity. You would be rejected as a follower by Jesus himself, because he wouldn't accept a vitriolic nincompoop spewing such hatred in his camp. Face it, you produce zero endorphins because you have zero friends!

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.