A Valentine for your Brain:
How Social Relationships affect Cognitive Health

Lauren Ehlert, RD, LD

What if we decorated Valentine’s Day with pink and red brains instead of hearts? It might look a little different but it would be an accurate symbol of how healthy social connections benefit our mental health. Social connections can give us opportunities to exercise our brains and help our bodies release chemicals that support brain health. Whether you are planning an evening out with your special someone or getting together with a friend for Galentine’s Day, everyone can reap the benefits of connecting with other people.

Social Connections and Mental Health

Social connections can support positive mental health and brain function in several ways. Studies suggest that staying connected with other people and being socially active may support healthy cognitive functioning as we get older (7). Cognitive functioning includes all sorts of mental processes like awareness, learning, understanding, memory, and perception (1).  A social relationship does not have to mean going on a date or having a romance, it can include meeting up with friends, attending events or group activities, or volunteering (7).

Social activities that get us together with other people may support our brain in global cognition which is basically overall thinking. For example, working memory is important for social interactions because we have to remember and analyze what other people said or did in the past couple of hours in order to navigate social situations. For example, if you are hosting or attending a party, and someone tells you they love card games, you might want to remember this later in the evening to facilitate a group activity. Or if someone tells you they have a shrimp allergy you will want to keep this in mind when you pass the hors d’ oeuvres so you don’t offer them some shrimp cocktail. The more often that we are in social situations, the more opportunities we have to practice using our working memory (1, 7).

Social Support is Good for the Brain

Our brains receive particular benefits from social support. If you have social support in your relationships, you feel like the other person or people are available to help you. This might mean emotional support, like listening to you when you are upset, instrumental support, like helping you lift something heavy, or informational support, like giving advice if you are going through a difficult situation. Social support may benefit memory. It may also help us to bounce back from the negative effects of stress and improve our executive functioning (7). Executive functioning is higher level thinking that helps us work towards goals and use good reason and judgment (5). For example, executive functioning helps us plan a meal, make a grocery list, and follow the recipe to put the finished dish on the table. Supportive social connections may help keep your mental health and brain sharp to perform these tasks.

Face-to-face Connections

We get the most mental health benefits from healthy relationships when our interactions are face to face. This is because of chemicals that are released in the body when we are with other people. Face-to-face interactions cause our bodies to produce a chemical called oxytocin. Oxytocin can help decrease our perception of stress, and support healthy cognitive function (4).

Over the past couple of years we have relied heavily on technology to maintain our social connections when our ability to be face-to-face has been limited. While we are fortunate to have technology to allow ourselves to connect with others, the lack of oxytocin may help explain why most of us have felt that our video calls are not quite the same as our in person meetings. Lack of connection and loneliness can even affect our quality of sleep and therefore our energy levels the next day. Some research suggests that even if we are sleeping the same amount of time, someone who feels lonely may have less restorative sleep than someone who feels they have the companionship they need (6).

How can we give our mental health the valentine of social connection?

Prioritize meeting with other people, particularly those who you feel are supportive to you. It’s not a bad idea to seek out opportunities to meet more people, but you will find more brain benefits from working on quality of relationships rather than quantity (2). Carve out time to meet up with a close friend, family member, or mentor. Bundle up and meet at a park with coffee or go for a walk together. Try hosting a game night or a dinner. Do this in person if you feel comfortable or over the phone or video call if needed.

Another idea is to commit to opportunities to volunteer, maybe even volunteer with a supportive friend. If you are feeling overwhelmed by loneliness or feel isolated, reach out to a professional. Sometimes when we are lonely we tend to withdraw from social interactions even more and a counselor or therapist can help us overcome negative thoughts that hold us back, such as “no one likes me,” or “I’m socially awkward.”

For more information on how to beat these negative thinking patterns, reach out to a professional who specializes in cognitive behavioral therapy and check out our previous blog on negative thinking patterns.

No matter how you choose to go about it, take some time to invest in your person-to-person connections. Candy brains with sweet messages may never catch on, but by prioritizing healthy relationships with social connections, you can give your mental health some love.

References:

  1. APA Dictionary of Psychology. 2020. American Psychological Association. https://dictionary.apa.org/cognitive-functioning
  2. Cacioppo, Stephanie et al. “Loneliness: clinical import and interventions.” Perspectives on psychological science : a journal of the Association for Psychological Science vol. 10,2 (2015): 238-49. doi:10.1177/1745691615570616
  3. Cao, Bei et al. “The Global Cognition, Frontal Lobe Dysfunction and Behavior Changes in Chinese Patients with Multiple System Atrophy.” PloS one vol. 10,10 e0139773. 2 Oct. 2015, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0139773
  4. Griffin, J. (2010). The Lonely Society. Mental Health Foundation. www.mentalhealth.org.uk/sites/default/files/the_lonely_society_report.pdf
  5. Johnson, Julene K et al. “Executive function, more than global cognition, predicts functional decline and mortality in elderly women.” The journals of gerontology. Series A, Biological sciences and medical sciences vol. 62,10 (2007): 1134-41. doi:10.1093/gerona/62.10.1134
  6. Hawkley, Louise C et al. “Loneliness impairs daytime functioning but not sleep duration.” Health psychology : official journal of the Division of Health Psychology, American Psychological Association vol. 29,2 (2010): 124-9. doi:10.1037/a0018646
  7. Kelly, M.E., Duff, H., Kelly, S. et al. The impact of social activities, social networks, social support and social relationships on the cognitive functioning of healthy older adults: a systematic review. Syst Rev 6, 259 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1186/s13643-017-0632-2