The new work is also part of a field called grounded or embodied cognition. Basically, this ever-growing understanding of human mental function notes that all ideas and concepts—including hard-to-grasp ones like personality and trustworthiness—are ultimately anchored in concrete situations that happen to flesh-bound bodies. For example, our faces respond to disconcerting behavior (incest) in a similar way to disgusting ingestive behavior (crunching a cockroach). Moral from oral.
In the realm of relationships, this mingling of the less and more-concrete means that attachment experiences with specific others, their unconscious emotional tone, and the temperatures they actually feel activate and are stored in overlapping networks of brain areas. These are the so-called multimodal brain regions (a key one is called the insula) that blend different channels of sensory experience into a singular whole. In individual brains, then, the multichannel experience of being safe with another (initially, a mother) is forever fused with the experienced physical warmth that comes with being safe, fed and held. At the level of both brain and experience, this multi-sensory co-experiencing forms a wordless bedrock that implicitly grounds relational language, interpersonal evaluation, social cognition, and even imagined ingestion. “Warm” triggers “trust,” as well as the reverse.
From these insights, other questions abound. Regarding the biology of attachment and warmth, for example, one wonders whether certain molecules—the attachment hormone oxytocin, for example — bias cognition and behavior in a balmier direction. After all, given its vital role in birth, nursing, and early attachment bonds, oxytocin has a strong unconscious association with warm milk, a tendency to inspire trust and generosity, and the capacity to make more benign the valuation of others. Oxytocin even boosts a persons’ perception of the warmth of their own personality, and a ‘warm touch’ intervention in married couples enhances oxytocin levels. On the opposite hormonal pole, might testosterone—which decreases trust — also make things seem colder?
My late, beloved father—a psychologist — had a puckish propensity to char the toast that was a mandatory component of his hand-made hot breakfast ritual. Thanks to social neuroscience, I can now better appreciate (and perpetuate) the wisdom of this ritual linking hot food with heart-felt.
Are you a scientist who specializes in neuroscience, cognitive science, or psychology? And have you read a recent peer-reviewed paper that you would like to write about? Please send suggestions to Mind Matters editor Gareth Cook, a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist at the Boston Globe. He can be reached at garethideas AT gmail.com or Twitter @garethideas.