The human brain is believed to be the most complex organ in the body, responsible for processing information, regulating important functions and a host of other intricate activities which help keep the body in balance. In the brain there are molecules called neurotransmitters which are constantly changing as varying amounts are released by the brain. These neurotransmitters seem to govern the emotional state of individuals, directly affecting one’s happiness. A primary neurotransmitter is Dopamine, which is responsible for the reward and pleasure systems of the brain. Dopamine’s relationship to the way humans behave appears to be in proportion to the levels in the brain; the higher the dopamine levels, the happier one might feel. Dopamine is believed to play an important role in ‘‘positive reinforcement, making humans likely to repeat pleasurable actions.’’ Recently, Northeastern University published a research journal which suggests dopamine might play a key role in the way humans form social connections.
Based in Boston, Massachusetts, Northeastern University Professor Lisa Feldman Barrett headed up a study into the connections between Dopamine and human bonding. According to the journal published, the significance of this study was to exploring impact early life bonding in humans and its potential long-term implications on ‘‘health, productivity, and well-being in society.” Participating in this study were 19 mother-infant pairs whose brain activity was monitored through the use of two, simultaneous, brain scans. This technology used to facilitate the simultaneous brain scans, is known as a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). The fMRI technology was used to closely examine the brain activity in each mother-infant pair while they participated in a series of activities. The fMRI monitored the regions of the brain to provide data on how the mind responded to different tasks which regions to offer a detailed presentation of an active human mind.
Using this method, the researchers were able to confirm increased activity in the brain when the mothers gazed at their infants, suggesting increased pleasure levels during this interaction. This was contrasted with the infants playing on their own, however, the researchers noticed a distinct increase in dopamine levels when an infant played with their mother. Professor Lisa Feldman Barrett’s team concentrated their study on the release of dopamine in the brain and the brain as both parties responded during the mother and infant interaction. The results of this experiment seemed to indicate a relationship between social interaction and the release of the reward neurotransmitter, dopamine; a discovery which potentially suggests social interactions may be important to maintain a healthy mental state.
The synchronicity in behaviour between a mother and her infant is known to scientists as “maternal attunement”. This recent study, and its results, seemed to observe maternal attunement as it occurred naturally, between the 19 mother-infant pairings. As mothers responded and adjusted their behaviour to their infant’s cues for social engagement, Professor Lisa Feldman Barrett and her team noticed greater activity in the regions of the brain responsible for pleasure. This study between the intimacy and social relationship of mothers and their infants might shed light on how humans perceive and respond to social relationships. Professor Lisa Feldman Barrett noted these findings might have the potential to reveal how the social environment may impact the developing brain. The results of this study may improve understanding of human bonding by providing more information on the neurochemistry behind social interactions. Through understanding the importance and function of the human bonding process at an early age, social development and optimum mental health might be achieved later in life.
How might the social environment of developing minds play an important role in mental health?