Eastern Mennonite University

The Social Regulation of Emotion

Dr. Jim Coan

Social relationships confer a host of advantages for health and well being. A major mechanism underlying these associations is the social regulation of emotion. Specifically, the presence of other people—especially trusted and familiar relational partners—significantly attenuates the activity of neural circuits sensitive to threat. This result has now been observed in several quite distinct samples and appears highly generalizable. The neural mechanisms responsible for attenuating threat responding in the presence of social resources still remain a mystery, but they lead to two important emerging insights about the human brain. First, although we tend to assume that a single individual is the smallest unit of analysis in measuring human behavior, individual behavior—that is, behavior that is independent of interaction with other humans—is probably the exception rather than the rule. Second, the human brain automatically extends representations of the self to individuals with which it is familiar, a process that in turn extends neural processing to other brains, rendering problem solving and emotion regulation less effortful. These two emerging insights have implications, some of which I will discuss, for how we understand a variety of spiritual and religious experiences.