Social support may benefit mental and physical well-being, but most research has focused on the receipt, rather than the provision, of social support. We explored the potentially beneficial effects of support giving by examining the neural substrates of giving support to a loved one. We focused on a priori regions of interest in the ventral striatum and septal area (SA) because of their role in maternal caregiving behavior in animals.
Twenty romantic couples completed a functional magnetic resonance imaging session in which the female partner underwent a scan while her partner stood just outside the scanner and received unpleasant electric shocks.
Support giving (holding a partner’s arm while they experienced physical pain), compared with other control conditions, led to significantly more activity in the ventral striatum, a reward-related region also involved in maternal behavior (p values < .05). Similar effects were observed for the SA, a region involved in both maternal behavior and fear attenuation. Greater activity in each of these regions during support giving was associated with greater self-reported support giving effectiveness and social connection (r values = 0.55–0.64, p values < .05). In addition, in line with the SA’s role in fear attenuation (presumably to facilitate caregiving during stress), increased SA activity during support giving was associated with reduced left (r = −0.44, p < .05) and right (r = −0.42, p < .05) amygdala activity.
Results suggest that support giving may be beneficial not only for the receiver but also for the giver. Implications for the possible stress-reducing effects of support giving are discussed.
VS = ventral striatum; SA = septal area; ROI = region of interest