You don’t need a neuroscientist to tell you that spending time with people (you like) is good for your health. But scientists have proved that social interaction and “environmental enrichment” (physical activity, spatial exploration, social interaction, sensory stimuli) improves brain function.
The hippocampus is the part of the brain that is involved in processing new information and forming memories. It’s one of the few parts of the brain that continues to improve (by generating new nerve cells) throughout our lifetime. By engaging in environmental enrichment – hanging out with friends, playing team sports, cooking together and other group activities – your brain increases synaptic transmission (better neuronal communication) and plasticity (making your brain more agile, quick to respond and process ideas).
It’s especially important to continue to form and maintain social bonding groups as we age. Because as researchers at Ohio State University, Columbus, have found, memory declines as the years roll on, but consistent environmental enrichment seems to delay the effects of aging in the brain and even strengthen it. The researchers’ findings, published in the journal Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience, recommended retaining close friendships as a way of keeping memory loss at bay.
Other experts agree. Psychologist Susan Pinker told Medical News Today that interacting with others builds resilience by triggering neurotransmitters that handle stress and anxiety responses:
“Face-to-face contact releases a whole cascade of neurotransmitters and, like a vaccine, they protect you now, in the present, and well into the future, so simply […] shaking hands, giving somebody a high-five is enough to release oxytocin, which increases your level of trust, and it lowers your cortisol levels, so it lowers your stress,” said Professor Pinker.
Dr. Pinker also noted that social interaction is a “natural high”: “Dopamine is [also] generated, which gives us a little high and it kills pain, it’s like a naturally produced morphine.”
Are friends electric?
Social interaction also helps us heal during illness, according to research carried out by the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI), in collaboration with the University of Oxford.
In a longitudinal study of patients undergoing chemotherapy, researchers found that those who were in open wards (not private rooms) had an impact on each other’s chance of survival. The researchers found that patients going through chemotherapy together would influence each other’s outcomes. If one patient happened to die within five years, the other patient had increased their likelihood of dying by 42%. However, if the patient survived, their companion had a 30% increase of survival.
Researchers at the University of India discovered the reason might be because the social environment we are in can affect our levels of stress, which can play a key part in our health. People dealing with similar circumstances are, therefore, great for patients to have around; they can play an ideal role in helping cope emotionally and reduce stress.
Let’s get social
Before you get dash off, why not take at least one of these actions to ensure your friends-sphere is secure for the future?
- Send a group text to your four best friends and suggest meeting up this weekend. Don’t stress about the venue – make it really simple – 4 PM at a local cafe (then you don’t have to cater, or do the dishes afterwards).
- Find a new passion by checking out the local community college for classes you’d enjoy to improve your brain and meet a whole new crowd.
- Love books? Meetup, a popular community finding site and app, has hundreds of book clubs around the US – segmented by different genres so you can go high brow (Marcel Proust?) or as beach-read-bombshell (no judgments here) you wish.
- Get crafty: working with your hands is an excellent way to relieve stress and meet like-minded folks. Knitting circle or boat-building? Or both?
By this time next year, you’ll have not only made new friends, and given your long-term companions some love, and you’ll have strengthened your synapses, built resilience into your neurons and helped your hippocampus store memories for the future.