Analysis: we can often experience the same psychological and physiological benefits of love with strangers

By Jolanta Burke and Trudy Meehan, RCSI

Human beings are sensitive about other people's emotions. We are wired for connection; when someone smiles at us, we smile back; when someone frowns, we frown in return; when someone experiences joy, our heart skips a beat. We cannot help ourselves. This process is a natural outcome of an interaction. Our systems automatically synchronise with those around us. This synchronicity results in emotional contagion, whereby emotional states spread through crowds like a wildfire.

When two strangers experience these small moments of shared positive emotion, it can look and feel very similar to some of the processes involved in our traditional idea of love. Barbara Fredrickson called this "positivity resonance", and explains that we share one emotion across two bodies.

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From MIT Media Lab, Barbara Fredrickson on positivity resonance

But, most importantly, we do not need a shared history or romantic intimacy to experience positivity resonance. We can experience it in such fleeting moments of connection as eye contact, a shared smile and sharing a story or pleasantries with a stranger. We turn towards each other in these micro-moments and effect synchronisation between our behavioural, psychological and physical systems. We share gestures, move toward each other, share emotional states or stories and thoughts, and we share changes in our bodies. When this happens, we get a feeling of mutual care for each other, a central feature of love.

When strangers connect, neuroimaging studies show that there's synchronisation across two individuals’ brains when they share a story. In addition, Fredrickson’s work has shown an alignment in our nervous system, with the vagus nerve, which runs from our brainstem through our heart down to our gut, becoming active in both people.

The vagus nerve activates our calm and connect response and allows us to feel safe and bonded at the moment. This feels good for both people, but it has individual benefits too. For example, the more we connect and use our vagus nerve, the better toned it becomes, and a toned vagus nerve is beneficial for cardiovascular health.

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From RTÉ 2fm's Jennifer Zamparelli show, resident sex therapist, Rachel Cooke on getting ready for Valentine's Day

Another thing that happens when we connect with strangers is a shared chemical synchronisation through a chemical called oxytocin. This chemical is interesting because it is implicated in social bonding, often called the cuddle hormone, as it increases when people merely talk about falling in love, look at a newborn baby or a puppy. It is released in massive quantities between a child and career, but also in micro-moments of connection between strangers.

One of the benefits of oxytocin, especially when we connect with strangers, is that it helps us be more in tune with the other person. For example, when it arises, we are more likely to tune into someone else's smile to gather information about how genuine they are. Oxytocin helps us bond, but it also helps us bond wisely, improving our ability to sense trustworthiness or not. One of the extraordinary things about experiencing these micro-moments of positivity resonance between strangers is that it has been shown to make us more likely to focus on others. These moments of connection take us away from thinking about 'me’ and instead focus on 'we’, and they help us experience the physiological benefits of romantic love with strangers.

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From Neuroscientifically Challenged, a two minute guide to how oxytocin works on your brain

This is why you don’t need a partner to feel love. All you need is a stranger with whom you can experience positivity resonance to give you some of the benefits of romantic love. Here is an adapted activity that can help you do it.

Over the next few days, try to experience more social connections (safely). Search for mutual smiles, laughs, acts of kindness, moments when you both think the same thing when witnessing a situation. In other words, search for similar acts of resonance with strangers, acquaintances, colleagues, friends, or family members. In the evening, reflect on how each connection made a difference in your day.

Noticing these special moments of connection will bring them right up to your consciousness, helping you experience them more frequently. What better way to spend your St. Valentine's Day than allowing yourself to experience love over and over again… with strangers.

Dr Jolanta Burke is a Senior Lecturer at the Centre for Positive Psychology and Health at RCSI University of Medicine and Health Sciences and a chartered psychologist specialising in Positive Psychology. Her research examines the application of positive psychology to enhance wellbeing. Dr Trudy Meehan is a Lecturer at the Centre for Positive Psychology and Health at RCSI University of Medicine and Health Sciences and a chartered clinical psychologist with the Psychological Society of Ireland. Her teaching, research and practice is community engaged and her research examines the value of art practice and play.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ