Many of people's closest bonds grow out of socially warm exchanges and the warm feelings associated with being socially connected. Indeed, the neurobiological mechanisms underlying thermoregulation may be shared by those that regulate social warmth, the experience of feeling connected to other people. To test this possibility, we placed participants in a functional MRI scanner and asked them to (a) read socially warm and neutral messages from friends and family and (b) hold warm and neutral-temperature objects (a warm pack and a ball, respectively). Findings showed an overlap between physical and social warmth: Participants felt warmer after reading the positive (compared with neutral) messages and more connected after holding the warm pack (compared with the ball). In addition, neural activity during social warmth overlapped with neural activity during physical warmth in the ventral striatum and middle insula, but neural activity did not overlap during another pleasant task (soft touch). Together, these results suggest that a common neural mechanism underlies physical and social warmth.
Keywords: brain; emotions; functional MRI; insula; interpersonal relationships; social connection; temperature; ventral striatum; warmth.