Pain tolerance predicts human social network size.
Johnson KV., Dunbar RI.
Personal social network size exhibits considerable variation in the human population and is associated with both physical and mental health status. Much of this inter-individual variation in human sociality remains unexplained from a biological perspective. According to the brain opioid theory of social attachment, binding of the neuropeptide β-endorphin to μ-opioid receptors in the central nervous system (CNS) is a key neurochemical mechanism involved in social bonding, particularly amongst primates. We hypothesise that a positive association exists between activity of the μ-opioid system and the number of social relationships that an individual maintains. Given the powerful analgesic properties of β-endorphin, we tested this hypothesis using pain tolerance as an assay for activation of the endogenous μ-opioid system. We show that a simple measure of pain tolerance correlates with social network size in humans. Our results are in line with previous studies suggesting that μ-opioid receptor signalling has been elaborated beyond its basic function of pain modulation to play an important role in managing our social encounters. The neuroplasticity of the μ-opioid system is of future research interest, especially with respect to psychiatric disorders associated with symptoms of social withdrawal and anhedonia, both of which are strongly modulated by endogenous opioids.