Cultivating social connection has long been a goal of psychology, philosophy, religion, and public policy. Yet the psychological and neural responses that accompany a feeling of connection to others remain unclear. In the present study, we used functional neuroimaging to shed light on the neural correlates of self- and other-focused processes during the successful self-generation of feelings of social connection. To do this, we used a trait judgment task to localize functional activation related to self-focused thought. We then examined brain responses during guided exercises designed both to encourage feeling love and connection from others (i.e., self-focused) and to generate feelings of love and connection toward others (i.e., other-focused). Our results indicated that generating feelings of social connection recruited a portion of the medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC) implicated in thinking about both the self and others. Within this larger area, we observed distinct profiles of activation within different subregions. Although rostral anterior cingulate cortex was more strongly activated by other-focused components of the task, a more dorsal portion of MPFC was comparatively more active during primarily self-focused components of the task. Somewhat surprisingly, stronger feelings of social connection were not associated with greater activation in the anterior cingulate, but rather with less activation in the dorsal region of the MPFC related to self-focused thought. These results are consistent with the possibility that reducing certain kinds of self-focused thought might yield a greater sense of social connection to and care for others.
Hutcherson, C. A., Seppala, E. M., & Gross, J. J. (2015). The neural correlates of social connection. Cognitive, Affective, &Behavioral Neuroscience, 15(1), 1-14.