The Brain Benefits of Having Buddies

Matthew King, The Boston Globe Magazine
March 09, 2017

“Beyond managing our moods, Coan believes that our brains evolved to rely on social resources like friendship. His Social Baseline Theory, published in 2015, argues that the human brain depends upon a sophisticated network of relationships to coordinate cognitive energies and accomplish shared goals, which he suggests is unique to humans. Unlike most primates, human beings are prepared to have multiple kinds of caregivers, and we tend to cooperate reflexively with one another from an early age. ” Get the full article here (external link).

Why Friends Are Even More Important As We Age

Joan Lunden, The Today Show
May 24, 2016

Watch the video here (external link).

People who possess this one thing enjoy much better health as they age, science shows.

Barbara Bradley Hagerty, The Washington Post
May 17, 2016

“This is more than a psychological phenomenon, says James Coan, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia, who directs the Virginia Affective Neuroscience Laboratory. Friends share the burden of life, helping you deal with 21st-century “threats” — office politics, the no-show of the babysitter, the health scares or spats with your spouse, the growing needs of your aging parents. We are wired to rely on friends, and this trickles down to our biology.” Get the full article here (external link).

Boomers Face A ‘Divorce Revolution,’ But Some Can Learn From Happy Couples

Michel Martin, All Things Considered, NPR News
March 19, 2016

“…love is not a romantic sentiment. It’s actually a survival mechanism, kind of an evolutionary code that’s designed to keep people close to you who are going to help you deal with life threats. So after this therapy, the unhappy wives went right back into the scanner. And the wives’ brains now looked like those of happily-married women. It suggests that even people on the brink of divorce who might make a go of it actually can improve their marriage enough to be happy.” Get the full report here (external link).

Midlife Friendship Key To A Longer, Healthier Life

Barbara Bradley Hagerty, Morning Edition, NPR News
March 16, 2016

“I gaze at the screen above. Whenever I see a red X, there’s a 1 in 5 chance that I’ll receive an electric shock in the next few seconds. Whenever I see an O, that means I’m safe. The researchers want to see how my brain reacts to the prospect of pain, and in particular, whether it behaves differently whether I’m facing the threat alone, holding the hand of a stranger – one of the technicians – or the hand of Cherie, who’s been a close friend for nearly 20 years.” Get the full report here (external link).

The Ambivalent Marriage Takes a Toll on Health

Tara Parker-Pope, The New York Times
October 26, 2015

“I think about relationships like the stock market,” he said. “There are bull markets and bear markets in any short period of time, but if you take the long view, the investment almost always pays off.” Get the full article here (external link).

Närhet ger bäst vila för våra hjärnor (Proximity provides the best rest of our brains)

Svenska Dagbladet (Swedish daily newspaper)
September 10, 2015

“Det här utgångsläget, eller baslinjen, anser James Coan och hans forskarkolleger är mer sannolikt än ”the individual baseline” som man tidigare trodde gällde för hjärnan: att den skulle vara som minst aktiv om vi var ensamma och utan stimuli. I stället har deras studier visat att fungerande sociala sammanhang – med samspel, ömsesidigt beroende och gemensamma intressen – får hjärnan att hushålla med sin energi som allra bäst. De kallar hjärnans viloläge för ”the social baseline theory”.” Get the full article here (external link).

But What About Fraud? Reflections and advice from Peter Medawar

Circle of Willis, A Blog by Jim Coan
June 19, 2014

Some policemen are venal; some judges take bribes and deliver verdicts accordingly; there are secret diabolists among men in holy orders and among vice-chancellors are many who believe that most students enjoying higher education would be better-off as gardeners or in the mines; moreover, some scientists fiddle their results or distort the truth for their own benefit. Get the full essay here (external link).

Negative Psychology–The Atmosphere of Wary and Suspicious Disbelief

Circle of Willis, A Blog by Jim Coan
May 30, 2014

Negative Psychology implies a belief that increased wariness and suspicion will enhance scientific progress, a perspective with which I wholeheartedly disagree. But Negative Psychology also encompasses that suite of behaviors—public ridicule and shaming, moral outrage, clumsy humor—that the internet has a tendency to encourage. Get the full essay here (external link).

Why We Hold Hands


The Human Brain and Empathy

The Academic Minute on WAMC
January 13, 2014

Scientists have long known that when the people we love most are near, we are happier and healthier. In our laboratory, we use brain imaging to measure the activity of the functioning brain during periods of mild stress, and during the momentary relief from that stress brought about by contact with another person—contact in the form of simple handholding. Get the full audio here (external link).

How marriage can save your life

Kate Lunau, McLean’s
January 9, 2014

Beyond financial support, though, the mere presence of a loving partner seems to dampen stress and regulate pain. In her new book, Love Sense, Ottawa-based psychologist Sue Johnson describes a study by James Coan at the University of Virginia, who put happily married women inside an fMRI machine, which measures brain activity. Read the full article (external link).

The Top Ten Brain Science and Psychology Studies of 2013.
#2: To Your Brain, Me is We

David DiSalvo, Forbes
December 12, 2013, 2013

A 2013 study from University of Virginia researchers supports a finding that’s been gaining science-fueled momentum in recent years: the human brain is wired to connect with others so strongly that it experiences what they experience as if it’s happening to us. Read the full article (external link).

We’re Wired For Empathy

August 26, 2013

Click here for an original video from Slate Magazine on our lab’s study of how familiarity propotes the blurring of self and other in the neural representation of threat.

To the Human Brain, Me Is We

David DiSalvo, Forbes
August 22, 2013

“The correlation between self and friend was remarkably similar,” said James Coan, a psychology professor in U.Va.’s College of Arts & Sciences who co-authored the study. “The finding shows the brain’s remarkable capacity to model self to others; that people close to us become a part of ourselves, and that is not just metaphor or poetry, it’s very real. Literally we are under threat when a friend is under threat. But not so when a stranger is under threat.” Read the full article (external link).

The Science of Friendship

Live Interview, Canada AM
March 25, 2013

Jim Coan from the University of Virginia explains the effects friends have on our health and well-being, and the science behind it. See the full video here (external link).

Friendship: Close Ties that Enhance, Extend Life

Rita Braver, CBS Sunday Morning
March 17, 2013

Braver went through one series of shocks alone, and another holding the hand of a good friend, “Sunday Morning” producer Kay Lim. And like all of the other subjects, the parts of my brain that sense danger were less — much less — active when she was holding her friend’s hand. “I would say it was a bigger difference even than we had predicted,” said Coan, examining Braver’s scans. So what does the test tell about what it means to have a friend? See the full video here (external link).

Can We Be Smarter About Our Feelings?

Emma Rathbone, The University of Virginia Magazine
December, 2012

Jim Coan is an associate professor of psychology who studies emotion through a coding system whereby he attempts to measure a person’s emotional behavior precisely through indicators such as body language and facial expressions. He then uses that system to study how people interact when solving a conflict. Read the full article (external link).

[Note: Can I just brag for a second about the fact that this interview was conducted by acclaimed novelist Emma Rathbone? How great is that?

SPAFF Coding the 3rd Presidential Debate, live and in real time on Twitter

October 22, 2012

James Coan will be SPAFF coding tonight’s debate in real time at twitter at The SPAFF (stands for “Specific Affect”) is a sophisticated system for carefully monitoring emotional behavior. Read more about the SPAFF here (external link).

Stress: The roots of resilience

Virginia Hughes, Nature
October 10, 2012

James Coan, a psychologist at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, has done a series of experiments in which women lie in an fMRI scanner and see ‘threat cues’ on a screen. They are told that between 4 and 10 seconds later, they may receive a small electric shock on the ankle. The cue triggers sensory arousal and activates brain regions associated with fear and anxiety, but when the women hold the hands of their husbands or friends, these responses diminish. Read the full article (external link).

Why the Puppy Cam Is About to Make the Whole Internet Better at Photoshop

Alexis Madrigal, The Atlantic
June 7, 2012

Back in 2009, researchers Gary Sherman, Jonathan Haidt, and James Coan recruited a group of 40 women at the University of Virginia and asked them to play the game Operation. You remember that one, right? There are these 12 plastic organs placed in this cardboard man gameboard; each one is set in a little cavity that is lined with conductive metal, and the point of the game is to extract the organs with a pair of tweezers without hitting the metal around the edges. (I still remember the horrible buzzing noise the game made when you did so, too.) Read the full article (external link).

Addendum: More on cuteness! Not by us, but highly related.

Sarah Kliff, The Washington Post
October 1, 2012

When economists talk about boosting productivity, they usually talk about increasing the adoption of new technologies and optimizing workflows. Japanese researchers, however, have come up with a very offbeat approach: Showing workers lots of pictures of adorable, fuzzy, baby animals. Read the full article (external link)

Psychological Scientist Takes a Fresh Look at Our Selves

Robin Tricoles, Federation of Associations in Behavioral & Brain Sciences (FABBS)
May 31, 2012

“We’ve gotten used to thinking that the self is what’s under our skin,” he says. “But the neural representation of ourselves expands when we have relationships with people. Even social support may be a form of empathy. So, when we’re under threat, we feel less threatened when our friend is with us, and when our friend is under threat, we feel threatened too, all because as we grow close we begin to share resources, almost as if we’re the same person.” Read the full article (external link).

The Brain on Love

Diane Ackerman, The New York Times
March 24, 2012

Whether they speak Armenian or Mandarin, people around the world use the same images of physical pain to describe a broken heart, which they perceive as crushing and crippling. It’s not just a metaphor for an emotional punch. Social pain can trigger the same sort of distress as a stomachache or a broken bone. But a loving touch is enough to change everything. James Coan, a neuroscientist at the University of Virginia, conducted experiments in 2006 in which he gave an electric shock to the ankles of women in happy, committed relationships. Read the full article (external link).

Attach, and give your brain a break from stress

Jon G. Allen, The Menninger Clinic
September 27, 2011

We put a lot of effort into developing treatment methods to help patients become more adept at self-regulation of emotions. Prominent examples include mindfulness practice, dialectical behavior therapy and cognitive-behavior therapy. No doubt, we all need to be adept at self-regulation; we can’t be holding our attachment figure’s hand whenever we feel threatened! Yet self-regulation is not the most efficient or powerful means of emotion regulation. Accordingly, we should be putting as much—or more—effort into developing treatment approaches that enhance attachment relationships and promote security in those relationships. Read the full article (external link).

Peering Inside the Social Brain

Siri Carpenter, Science
May 14, 2010

What makes it possible for people to love, hate, help, or betray one another? How do we decode facial expressions? How do we understand and regulate our own emotional experiences? How do we separate the self from the other, make moral judgments, or decide how much money to save for retirement? What causes some people to turn to religious extremism, heroin, or politics? How does the brain fail those with social deficits such as autism? Read the full article (external link).

Is Marriage Good for Your Health?

Tara Parker-Pope, The New York Times Magazine
April 14, 2010

Coan says the study simulates how a supportive marriage and partnership gives the brain the opportunity to outsource some of its most difficult neural work. “When someone holds your hand in a study or just shows that they are there for you by giving you a back rub, when you’re in their presence, that becomes a cue that you don’t have to regulate your negative emotion,” he told me. “The other person is essentially regulating your negative emotion but without your prefrontal cortex. It’s much less wear and tear on us if we have someone there to help regulate us.” Read the full article (external link).

Evidence That Little Touches Do Mean So Much

Benedict Carey, The New York Times
February 23, 2010

In the brain, prefrontal areas, which help regulate emotion, can relax, freeing them for another of their primary purposes: problem solving. In effect, the body interprets a supportive touch as “I’ll share the load.” “We think that humans build relationships precisely for this reason, to distribute problem solving across brains,” said James A. Coan, a psychologist at the University of Virginia. “We are wired to literally share the processing load, and this is the signal we’re getting when we receive support through touch.” Read the full article (external link).

Jim Coan and the Hand Holding Experiment

UVA Magazine, January 18, 2008

Marry Me

Lori Oliwenstein, Time Magazine (cover story)
January 17, 2008

When you are stuck in traffic or overwhelmed at work or worn down by the kids, the hypothalamus–a structure buried deep in the midbrain–tells your adrenal gland to pump out a supply of the stress hormone cortisol. Cortisol, in turn, tells your body to stop worrying about its basic metabolic needs and instead to “do the things you need to do to save yourself from whatever created the stress,” says University of Virginia neuroscientist James Coan. Read the full article (external link).

I Want Need to Hold Your Hand: The Social Regulation of Emotion

Catherine West, APS Observer
August, 2007

Have you ever wondered why people surrounded by friends or family appear happier and healthier? Or why a mother’s hand so quickly soothes a scared child? University of Virginia researcher James Coan addressed these and similar questions in his invited talk, “Toward a Neuroscience of the Social Regulation of Emotion,” at the APS 19th Annual Convention in Washington, DC. He also discussed the growing body of research showing that social contact serves as a buffer between life’s stressors and our health and happiness. Read the full article (external link).

Allyn Bacon Interview at APS, Washington DC, 2007

Click here and scroll to the right to find the James Coan interview

Interview on Insight with Tom Graham

2007 — Listen to the full interview here

Stressed Out? Grab Hubby’s Hand

Kathleen Doheny, The Washington Post
December 22, 2006

“Hand-holding is second nature for kids” when they’re under stress, said James A. Coan, assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Virginia, who led the study. “This can also work for adults.” Read the full article (external link).

Friends for Life: An Emerging Biology of Emotional Healing

Daniel Goleman, The New York Times
October 10, 2006

Even remotely suggesting health benefits from these interconnections will, no doubt, raise hackles in medical circles. No one can claim solid data showing a medically significant effect from the intermingling of physiologies. At the same time, there is now no doubt that this same connectivity can offer a biologically grounded emotional solace. Physical suffering aside, a healing presence can relieve emotional suffering. A case in point is a functional magnetic resonance imaging study of women awaiting an electric shock. When the women endured their apprehension alone, activity in neural regions that incite stress hormones and anxiety was heightened. Read the full article (external link).

A Simple Show of Hands

Stephanie Rosenbloom, The New York Times
October 5, 2006

“Hand-holding is the one aspect that’s not been affected by the sexual revolution,” said Dalton Conley, a professor and chairman of the department of sociology at New York University. “It’s less about sex than about a public demonstration about coupledom.” Nowadays hand-holding has attracted the interest of scientists who are studying its effects on the body and mind. Read the full article (external link).

Why Marriage is Good Medicine for Men

Gail Sheehy, Parade Magazine
June 18, 2006

The biggest fiction behind James Bond is that the fantasy master spy and world-class heartbreaker lived past 40-something. It’s not just the death traps and vodka martinis, or even the three packs of cigarettes a day, that would have shortened his life. His naked ring finger would have too. Because real men need wives. Read the full article.

Holding Loved One’s Hand Can Calm Jittery Neurons

Benedict Carey, The New York Times
January 31, 2006

Married women under extreme stress who reach out and hold their husbands’ hands feel immediate relief, neuroscientists have found in what they say is the first study of how human touch affects the neural response to threatening situations. The soothing effect of the touch could be seen in scans of areas deep in the brain that are involved in registering emotional and physical alarm. Read the full article (external link).

Art and Emotion Seen Eye to Eye

Liz Else, New Scientist
December 24, 2005

Art inspires strong feelings – and feelings work on the brain in very specific ways. So in theory, art should make a good tool for anyone who wants to explore not just art but also emotions and neurology. Absolutely, reckon British artist Helen Storey and American psychologist and neuroscientist Jim Coan. Earlier this year, they worked with a British secondary school for the pilot of an art-science experiment called Eye and I that they hoped would add fresh insights into the relationship between facial expressions and emotions. Read the full article.

Eye and I Documentary by Pinny Grylls

Interview on BBC Radio 4

John Wilson, Front Row
May, 2005

Interview about Eye and I

Pupils See Future Staring Them in the Face

Sally Pook, The Telegraph
May 16, 2005

“Could your facial expression be a determining factor in your future? What an incredible thing.” In collaboration with Dr Jim Coan, a neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin, she created the Eye and I experiment, which is being piloted at the Charles Edward Brooke School, in Camberwell. Read the full article (external link).

Childhood Trauma: Memory or Invention?

Daniel Goleman, The New York Times
July 21, 1992

With James Coan, a graduate student [sic], Dr. Loftus had a close relative of her experimental subjects describe three events from the subject’s childhood, and offer specifics for the setting of a fictitious fourth event, the time the person supposedly got lost. “We told the subjects we were studying childhood memories, and asked them to write everything they could remember about each of these incidents,” said Dr. Loftus. Read the full article (external link).