What is the value of a friendship? Why does it hurt when we lose one? How does parental nurturance affect us throughout our lives? What happens when we meditate or pray? How do such relationships and practices affect our health? Such topics have long been the domain of poets, priests, and philosophers rather than scientists, but it is becoming increasingly possible to study such questions with scientific methods.
And these are the questions that drive my research, which examines how social bonds affect physical health and psychological well-being. More specifically, research in this laboratory aims to identify the specific chemical, neural, and psychological pathways by which social relationships impact indices of health and health outcomes.
Much of this research stems from social sensitivity theory (Way and Gurbaxani, 2008; Way and Taylor, 2010), which hypothesizes that the same physiological pathways that affect sensitivity to negative social experiences also affect sensitivity to positive social experiences. The mechanisms underlying social sensitivity are being examined across multiple paradigms, including laboratory experiences of social rejection, aggression, and social evaluative threat (e.g. public speaking stress) as well as the formation of friendships and romantic relationships. These processes are being examined using a combination of neuroimaging, pharmacological, and genetic methods. Improved understanding of the physiological substrates of social experiences will provide insight into the means by which social variables activate health relevant pathways such as the immune system and stress axis.
As this research emphasizes the importance of environmental variables for health, a related line of research examines the role of meditation and related spiritual practices upon improving well-being.