Thoughts / share the journey
Us humans talk an awful lot. We are the only species on the planet that exchanges information predominantly through speech. Some of our friends, like the dolphins or the primates, have their own languages, but they don’t rely on verbal communication like we do. Almost to the exclusion of other channels like us humans do.
And what is it we’re talking about. According to the research, most of us are just mostly talking about other people. In fact, a whopping two-thirds of our conversation consists of gossip. Of course, we discuss other incredibly important things like the meaning of life, world events, the performance of the Wallabies on the weekend and how funny Gogglebox was last week, but overwhelmingly it appears we talk about the affairs of others.
Before some of you take the moral high ground and plead that you are way too intelligent, sensible and way too compassionate for gossip, it might be worthwhile thinking a bit further on the topic.
The term “gossip” tends to have a negative connotation. It can be defined as ‘casual or unconstrained conversation or reports about other people, typically involving details which are not confirmed as true’.
Unsurprisingly, we do not like when they find that they are being gossiped about, and as such there is a moral stigma attached to the people who are gossiping too much. However, more often than not, the gossips are not entirely negative — they tend to be a mixture of both positive and negative things. We provide other people with our assessment of another person’s reputation as we see it, typically involving both the person’s strengths and weaknesses, and with only limited evidence to substantiate either. These assessments might still be viewed unfavourably by the subjects of gossips, even when the assessment is predominantly positive. Nonetheless, we accept positive assessments with pleasure, but tend to be annoyed by criticism.
And how many of us can actually walk away from a juicy story about one of our acquaintances and keep it to ourselves? It’s so very tough! Surely, each of us has had firsthand experience with the difficulty of keeping spectacular news about someone else a secret.
When we disparage gossip as a character flaw of those shallower than ourselves, we overlook the fact that it’s an essential part of what makes the social world tick. Unfortunately, the nasty side of gossip overshadows the more benign ways in which it functions.
In fact, gossip can actually be thought of not as a character flaw, but as a highly evolved social skill. Those who can’t do it well often have difficulty maintaining relationships, and can find themselves on the outside looking in.
As social creatures, we’re made to gossip
Like it or not, we are the descendants of busybodies. Evolutionary psychologists believe that our preoccupation with the lives of others is a by-product of a prehistoric brain.
According to scientists, because our prehistoric ancestors lived in relatively small groups, they knew one another intimately. In order to ward off enemies and survive in their harsh natural environment, our ancestors needed to cooperate with in-group members. But they also recognized that these same in-group members were their main competitors for mates and limited resources.
Living under such conditions, our ancestors faced a number of adaptive social problems: who’s reliable and trustworthy? Who’s a cheater? Who would make the best mate? How can friendships, alliances and family obligations be balanced?
In this sort of environment, an intense interest in the private dealings of other people would have certainly been handy – and strongly favoured by natural selection. People who were the best at harnessing their social intelligence to interpret, predict – and influence – the behaviour of others became more successful than those who were not.
And then these genes of those individuals were passed along from one generation to the next.
Avoiding gossip: a one-way ticket to no friends
Anthropologists believe that throughout human history, gossip has been a way for us to bond with others—and sometimes a tool to isolate those who aren’t supporting the group.
Some argue that, at least in the workplace, gossip serves a useful purpose. In the workplace, studies have shown that harmless gossiping with one’s colleagues can build group cohesiveness and boost morale.
Gossip also helps to socialize newcomers into groups by resolving ambiguity about group norms and values. In other words, listening to the judgments that people make about the behaviour of others helps the newbie figure out what’s acceptable and what isn’t. Northeastern University professor Dr. Jack Levin, says that gossip can be good for our emotional health. (He makes an exception for the weapons-grade rumour-mongering that destroys reputations.) In general, he believes, gossip is a force that ties together social and business networks. Others identify it as a way to see behind the curtain of employer pronouncements.
Today, good gossipers are influential and popular members of their social groups.
Sharing secrets is one way people bond, and sharing gossip with another person is a sign of deep trust: you’re signalling that you believe that the person will not use this sensitive information against you.
Therefore, someone skilful at gossip will have a good rapport with a large network of people. At the same time, they’ll be discreetly knowledgeable about what’s going on throughout the group.
On the other hand, someone who is not part of, say, the office gossip network is an outsider – someone neither trusted nor accepted by the group. Presenting yourself as a self-righteous soul who refuses to participate in gossip will ultimately end up being nothing more than a ticket to social isolation.
Fear of whispers keeps us in check
On the flip side, the awareness that others are likely talking about us can keep us in line.
Among a group of friends or colleagues, the threat of becoming the target of gossip can actually be a positive force: it can deter “free-riders” and cheaters who might be tempted to slack off or take advantage of others.
Biologist Robert Trivers has discussed the evolutionary importance of detecting gross cheaters (those who fail to reciprocate altruistic acts) and subtle cheaters (those who reciprocate but give much less than they get). Gossip can actually shame these ‘free riders’, reining them in.
Studies of California cattle ranchers, Maine lobster fishers and college rowing teams confirm that gossip is used in a variety of settings to hold individuals accountable. In each of these groups, individuals who violated expectations about sharing resources or meeting responsibilities became targets of gossip and ostracism. This, in turn, pressured them to become better members of the group.
For example, lobstermen who didn’t respect well-established group norms about when and how lobsters could be harvested were quickly exposed by their colleagues. Their fellow lobstermen temporarily shunned them and, for a while, refused to work with them.
Celebrity gossip actually helps us in myriad ways!
Firstly, it appears our brain can't help not getting excited by the headlines on the covers on the trashy magazines.
The part of the brain responsible for our social behavior is the prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex is involved in social cognition and executive control. Social cognition refers to our ability to regulate our behavior and actions based on the real or assumed presence of other people. This is a trait that makes some want to conform to the norms and rules of society in which we live. Executive control channels our actual behavior and thoughts in the desirable direction. Studies with the use of functional MRI brain scans revealed the patterns of activation in the prefrontal cortex in response to positive and negative gossip about themselves, their best friends, and celebrities. A very interesting and revealing picture has emerged from these studies.
Two separate areas of the prefrontal cortex get activated in response to positive and negative gossip: positive gossip activates the orbital prefrontal cortex region, while negative gossip activates the superior medial prefrontal cortex. The intensity of responses was, however, very different depending on whether the gossip was about the subject of study or other people. Substantial activation of the superior medial prefrontal cortex was observed in both cases, regardless of the subject of the negative gossip. The orbital prefrontal cortex region was highly activated by positive gossip about the subjects themselves. However, this response was rather muted when the subjects listened to positive gossip about their friends or celebrities.
This study revealed volumes about the internal processes in our brain. It is quite clear that our ego makes us very attentive to any kind of information about ourselves passed around by other people. However, when it comes to information about others, we are biased to notice and register negative information preferentially. No wonder that the stories of scandals involving celebrities attract more attention than anything good these people do! Our own neuroanatomy makes celebrity magazines filled with the stories of scandals, cheating, and divorces, much more popular that magazines about happy family life.
There also could be a difference between strategy learning gossip and reputation gossip. A distinction noted by Belgian psychologist, Charlotte de Backer.
When gossip is about a particular individual, we’re usually interested in it only if we know that person. However, some gossip is interesting no matter whom it’s about. This sort of gossip can involve stories about life-or-death situations or remarkable feats. We pay attention to them because we may be able to learn strategies that we can apply to our own lives.
Indeed, de Backer discovered that our interest in celebrities may feed off of this thirst for learning life strategies. For better or for worse, we look to celebrities in the same way that our ancestors looked to role models within their tribes for guidance.
The bottom line is that we may need to rethink the role of gossip in everyday life; there’s no need to shy away from it or to be ashamed of it. Gossiping might just be a reflection of the curiosity that all of us humans possess.
If we gossip successfully and without intending harm on another, gossiping can assist in us being a good team player and sharing key information with others in ways that won’t be perceived as self-serving. It’s about knowing when it’s appropriate to talk, and when it’s probably best to keep your mouth shut.
It’s a fact of life: Where there are groups, there will be gossip. It’s how we’re wired. But like all things – there’s some skill to it.
When we talk about developing strong social connections, three words often come up – sympathy, empathy and compassion. Many of us use them interchangeably, and whilst they might be sort of related – second cousins maybe – they’re not synonymous with one another.
What they do have in common though, is that they are all a reaction to how someone else is feeling.
Let’s start with sympathy. If it was on a rating scale of degree of personal engagement with the reaction, sympathy would be at the lowest point of the three. Sympathy means you can understand what the other person is feeling and you experience care and concern for that person. What separates this emotion from the others though, is that while our facial expressions might convey caring and concern, we’re not sharing the other person’s distress. For example, we can probably sympathise with ladybugs or snails, but actually sharing their perspectives or emotions could be quite difficult.
If we take it up a notch on the scale of personal engagement, we get to empathy. Empathy can be defined as our ability to recognise and share the emotions of another person, fictional character, or sentient being. It involves, first, seeing someone else’s situation from their perspective, and, second, sharing their emotions.
In 1909, the psychologist Edward Titchener translated the German Einfühlung (‘feeling into’) into English as ‘empathy’. If we are to share in the perspective someone else, we need to do a lot more than merely put ourselves into their position. Instead, we need to imagine ourselves as them – with their personality, experiences, background - , and more than that, imagine ourselves as them in the particular situation in which they find themselves. To empathise we need to know this person AND we need to get creative with our imagination.
We may think of it as the business of escaping our normal egoism, of leaving the self – and putting ourselves imaginatively into someone else’s experience. But the trick for empathy might be slightly different. It isn’t so much about transcending ourselves as it is about practicing an unusual kind of introspection, which takes us into less familiar parts of our own minds.
Imagine if we were, for example, asked to empathise with someone who seems so far from our own personality, realm and experiences. Maybe an aristocratic, contemptuous, well-to-do gentleman from the late 1800s. Instead of giving up, we can try and draw on certain less obvious parts of our own experience. Insofar as each of us contains, in latent form, all of human life, there will inevitably be a small, currently recessive part of us that is in synch with the mindset we associate with a eighteenth century aristocrat.
We might remember one day being on a busy bus, totally annoyed by a group of obnoxious, perhaps drunk fellow passengers. The mood might not have lasted, but we might recognise for an instant in ourselves a potential to look rather sternly at others and suspect that in some ways, we might be rather better than other people. In trying to empathise with a lord, we’re seeking out and detecting an overlap of experience. We’re learning to recognise in a very different person an echo of our own intimate history.
It’s possible that the person who lacks empathy isn’t so much selfish as generally not fully alive to the darker, less familiar, more weird recesses of themselves: the parts that are a range of things that they aren’t quite most of the time. They might not be narrowly refusing the challenge of entering into the mind of another person, they may just be less aware of their own experiences or wary of treading with sufficient imagination into their own consciousness. Behind the reserve of the unempathetic is a fear of running into troubling emotions. The opposite of empathy isn’t just thinking of yourself; it’s thinking of yourself in limited ways.
Compassion kicks empathy and sympathy up a notch. When we are compassionate, we can feel the pain of another (i.e., empathy) or we can recognize that the person is in pain (i.e., sympathy), and then we take some action. We do something to try and alleviate the person’s suffering.
At its Latin roots, compassion means “to suffer with.” When you’re compassionate, you’re not running away from suffering, you’re not feeling overwhelmed by suffering, and you’re not pretending the suffering doesn’t exist. When you are practicing compassion, you can stay present with suffering.
Dr Thupten Jinpa, Ph.D., is the Dalai Lama’s principal English translator and a trainer in compassion cultivation. Jinpa posits that compassion is a four-step process:
- Awareness of suffering.
- Sympathetic concern related to being emotionally moved by suffering.
- Wish to see the relief of that suffering.
- Responsiveness or readiness to help relieve that suffering.
A compassionate response is something we do, not just something we think about. But at its core, compassion is also the acceptance of suffering. That doesn’t mean full detatchment, in which we stop giving a damn about anything (“hey, shit happens, move on”). Neither is it an intellectual acceptance of suffering that has us looking at someone’s personal tragedy through the haze of statistics (“well, you know, one in five these days). Rather, compassion is the acceptance that awful stuff can happen to any of us. But there are lots of things we can do to make that suffering way less shit.
For example, how good is it when someone really listens to us when we share a problem? The person listened without trying to fix our problem, and this person wasn’t relating it back to their own life. They listened without judgment. Simply listening with full presence can be one of the most compassionate acts we can offer.
An important distinction between empathy and compassion is how they can affect your overall well-being. If you are frequently feeling the pain of another, you may experience overwhelm or burnout.
Compassion, however, is a renewable resource. When you are able to feel empathy but then extend a hand to alleviate someone’s pain, you are less likely to burn out. Research indicates that compassion and empathy use different regions of the brain and that compassion can combat empathetic distress.
Don’t take it from me, though. The Dalai Lama famously said in the book The Art of Happiness, “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”
Let’s all just come out and admit it. There is nothing better than a good hug.
Our skin is our body's largest organ. It is also the fastest growing; it regenerates at an amazing rate—we sport a new coat of it every month. Skin acts as our body’s defense against the external world, as well as our brain’s collector of external data. The tips of our fingers, the soles of our feet, and our lips are designed to pick up the most precise pieces of sensory data, and have intense concentrations of nerve endings just for that purpose.
Even seemingly pure physiological reactions don’t happen in a vacuum—our affective antennae also gather information that informs our responses to circumstances charged with affective and cognitive complexity. The messages that nerve endings send take on another level of sophistication as the body responds at multiple points of activity.
A hug can offer an opportunity to provide a whole range of complex sensory responses that warm our heart and make us feel amazeballs.
The simple act of a hug isn't just felt on our arms. When we embrace someone, oxytocin is released in our brains, making us feel all warm and fuzzy inside. Oxytocin is also the neurochemical that has been linked to social bonding. It helps us build trust, it ‘dissolves’ short-term memory and it promotes feelings of bonding. It lays the biological structure for connecting to other people. And we can get it from a hug.
Researchers have also found that the presence of oxytocin can speed up the physical healing of wounds. Studies show that even a brief touch of the hand from someone who cares can start your oxytocin pumping. So when you offer a bear hug to someone in pain, or receive a big old bear hug when you are in pain, you not only begin the healing process, but you also allow your body to shut down memories of the painful stimulus. This is perhaps why the mother’s memories of labour are less disturbing when her newborn is placed in her arms and she is high on oxytocin. (Would there be any other reason women would go through that more than once?) Oxytocin encourages us to warm up to others and creates a sense of safety.
The hormones that are released in the body after a hug aren't just good for our happy-la-la feelings either. They can also help with our physical health. When someone touches us, the sensation on your skin activates pressure receptors called Pacinian corpuscles, which then send signals to the vagus nerve, an area of the brain that is responsible for (among many things) lowering blood pressure.
But the thing that I like most about the hug, is the message we can be sending each other when we engage in the act.
In our lives, the central time for hugging is early childhood. Up to about the age of four, a child may be frequently held, cradled, patted and carried. We accept that a little person can’t manage the trials of existence on their own and they will need a bigger person to take some of the strain. The young child can’t be helped by explanations and reasons; they respond to touch alone.
But as we grow towards adulthood, independence and self-reliance become key and the sort of hugs we once knew recede. Yet to suggest that we continue to need the proper, older kind of hug is to insist that we go on being, at points, rather like the children we once were, that is, people who can’t cope alone.
To be in need of a hug is to admit – in shorthand – ‘I feel, at the moment, terrifyingly small – and need someone else to be, for a while, like a parent’.
It’s tricky to admit how normal and reasonable such tendencies are. BUT THEY ARE. Some of us might see them like an affront to our individualism and dignity, but there can be no genuine maturity without an accommodation with the childhood self. I am not ashamed to admit that I still go to sleep hugging a soft toy. Or two.
The capacity to regress and show we need some help, should belong within every good loving relationship: it’s a sign that someone feels safe enough with you (and you with them) to allow themselves to be seen in a vulnerable state.
A hug is a symbol of everything we tend to sorely miss in our hyper-individualistic achievement-centred culture: a chance safely to admit that right now we are feeling vulnerable, and the other person is helping to keep us safe.
I’m pretty certain this will not be the first time you have heard or thought this, but quite possibly our biggest barrier to good social connection right now is our reliance on our phone.
The majority of us really, myself included, really love our phones.
It’s not a difficult stretch to say that most of us are dependent or ‘addicted’ to our smart device. We might not be injecting illegal substances or drowning ourselves in alcohol, but we are almost all dependent on this object in one way or another. ‘Addiction’ is (in essence) dependence on something that keeps our emotions at bay: it is (more broadly) any and every routine we deploy to avoid a fair and frank encounter with our own minds.
We use our phone a lot, yes. And we use them for a lot of things. Often we may find ourselves incapable of sitting alone in a room with our own thoughts floating freely in our own heads, daring to wander into the past and the future, allowing ourselves to feel pain, desire, regret and excitement. The phone offers us reprieve. Games, online shopping, social media. Distraction that fits neatly in the palm of our hand.
We are dependent on our phones not because we rely on them, but to the extent that we might use them as a coping mechanism for self-avoidance. They do not intent to hurt us. And they may not. But they probably will. They are so incredibly good at taking us away from ourselves. If there’s anywhere a lot of us don’t want to be, it’s with ourselves. And unless we can connect with ourselves and our own emotions for what they are, we’re really going to struggle truly connecting with others.
Secondly, the mere presence of a device can affect how we are relating to others. We don’t even need to be paying it any attention.
Przybylski and Weinstein asked pairs of strangers to discuss a moderately intimate topic (an interesting event that had occurred to them within the last month) for 10 minutes. The strangers left their own belongings in a waiting area and proceeded to a private booth. Within the booth, they found two chairs facing each other and, a few feet away, out of their direct line of vision, there was a desk that held a book and one other item. Unbeknownst to the pair, the key difference in their interactions would be the second item on the desk. Some pairs engaged in their discussion with a nondescript cell phone nearby, whereas other pairs conversed while a pocket notebook lay nearby. After they finished the discussion, each of the strangers completed questionnaires about the relationship quality (connectedness) and feelings of closeness they had experienced. The pairs who chatted in the presence of the cell phone reported lower relationship quality and less closeness.
Przybylski and Weinstein followed up with a new experiment to see, in which contexts, the presence of a cell phone matters the most. This time, each pair of strangers was assigned a casual topic (their thoughts and feelings about plastic trees) or a meaningful topic (the most important events of the past year) to discuss — again, either with a cell phone or a notebook nearby. After their 10-minute discussion, the strangers answered questions about relationship quality, their feelings of trust, and the empathy they had felt from their discussion partners.
The presence of the cell phone had no effect on relationship quality, trust, and empathy, but only if the pair discussed the casual topic. In contrast, there were significant differences if the topic was meaningful. The pairs who conversed with a cell phone in the vicinity reported that their relationship quality was worse. The pairs also reported feeling less trust and thought that their partners showed less empathy if there was a cell phone present.
Thus, interacting in a neutral environment, without a cell phone nearby, seems to help foster closeness, connectedness, interpersonal trust, and perceptions of empathy — the building-blocks of relationships. Past studies have suggested that because of the many social, instrumental, and entertainment options phones afford us, they often divert our attention from our current environment, whether we are speeding down a highway or sitting through a meeting. The new research suggests that cell phones may serve as a reminder of the wider network to which we could connect, inhibiting our ability to connect with the people right next to us. Cell phone usage may even reduce our social consciousness.
In principle, we want to have good relationships and social connections. We love family life and are very keen on and devoted to relationships. But, obviously, the reality is tricky. The wonderful things are mixed up with a lot that is awkward and frustrating. Our partner isn’t quite as sympathetic as we’d ideally like; our family is more conflicted and challenging than feels fair or reasonable.
Our phone, on the other hand, is docile, responsive to our touch, always ready to spring to life and willing to do whatever we want. Its malleability provides the perfect excuse for disengagement from the trickier aspects of other people. It’s almost not that rude to give it a quick check – just possibly we might actually need to keep track of how a news story is unfolding; a friend in another country may have just had a baby or someone we vaguely know might have bought a new pair of shoes in the last few minutes. It’s so tempting to press the screen when one’s partner launches into an account of their day or their play-by-play of today’s golf results. The details of their existence and their hopes for our shared domestic life cannot compete with how much the signed John Lennon print is going to go for on ebay or how many likes our last Instagram post received. Only the former will, in the long-run, be a lot more important – as we know.
Perhaps, the ongoing questions need to be – who am I in a relationship with right now? Who should I be connecting with? Is it myself? The person seated opposite me? Or is it my phone?
All of these blogs thus far are nice and all. Us humans are wired for social connection. Social connection is really good for us. Both physically and psychologically. Blah blah blah. But what is good social connection? What does it look like? What does it feel like? How do we know when we’re getting it? How do we get it? How do we give it to others?
There’s this friend of a friend who I occasionally see at the odd event or gathering or dinner. For ages I’ve been completely perplexed by this dude. My friends seem to really enjoy his company and they describe him as funny and nice and intelligent. But all of this is lost on me. Initially I just assumed he must think I am an idiot. Obvs. Over the course of a number of years, I have never been able to connect with him. And now I am going to put all the blame onto him. Obvs.
Firstly, he has a tendency to speak really quietly out of the side of his mouth to the person/s directly to the side of him. This makes any conversation difficult when you sit on the other side of the table. And he mumbles. His eye contact is incredibly poor. Secondly, when I offer something to the conversation, he will never engage in the topic. And often he will immediately change or dismiss the topic. And in all this time, and despite my best efforts to engage him in conversation, he has never once asked me a question. This could be because he thinks I am an idiot. Or his capacity for connection with me is a bit deficient.
Social psychologist, researcher and writer, Hugh Mackay reckons that human behaviours are motivated by ten main desires. When it comes to social connection, there’s one of these that I think is particularly important in determining how we relate to others and how we want others to relate to us – that’s the desire to be taken seriously.
To some degree, all of us want to be taken seriously. We want to be noticed, accepted, appreciated, valued and understood. Perhaps as we get older, we want to make sure we’ll be remembered.
When I engage with the fellow mentioned above do I have the opportunity to feel that I have been taken seriously? Hell no! The truth of the matter is, that I’ve been taken more seriously by puppies than this gentlemen. And as a result, I haven’t yet had a good connection with this guy.
And how do we ensure that we take others seriously? We really only need to do a few simple things.
- Reduce our need to control.
- Respect each other’s differences.
“So the way we listen to each other, the way we respect each other’s passions (even if we don’t share them), the way we respond to each other’s needs, the way we make – or don’t make – time for each other… all these things send clear signals about the extent to which we are taking each other seriously”.
So, the desire to be taken seriously, a possible starting point for us to form good social connections. It does have a dark side though. When we feel as though we’re not being taken seriously, we can become incredibly frustrated and cranky. But maybe it’s possible, if we go into our dealings with others, recognising that they too want the same thing as we do, we end up with interactions filled with patience, a little more kindness and a little more compassion? And listening. I’m a big fan of listening.
“Man is by nature a social animal … Anyone who either cannot lead the common life or is so self-sufficient as not to need to, and therefore does not partake of society, is either a beast or a god.” Aristotle
Not heaps has changed since Aristotle was around. Just as us humans have a basic need for food and shelter, we also have a basic need to belong to a group and form relationships.
The desire to be in a loving relationship, to fit in at school, to not be picked last for sporting teams, to join a mother’s group or men’s shed, to avoid rejection and loss, to see your friends do well and be cared for, to share good news with your family, to cheer on your NRL team, and to check in on Facebook—these things motivate an incredibly impressive array of our thoughts, actions, and feelings.
Abraham Maslow suggested that the need to belong was a major source of human motivation. In his hierarchy of human needs, the believed that belongingness was one of the major five - along with physiological needs, safety, self-esteem, and self-actualization. After we meet the needs of physiological and safety, we are then motivated towards the need to belong and to be loved. According to Maslow, if the first two needs are not met, then an individual cannot completely love someone else.
Other theories have also focused on the need to belong as a fundamental psychological motivation. According to Roy Baumeister and Mark Leary, all human beings need a certain minimum quantity of regular, satisfying social interactions. Inability to meet this need can results in loneliness, mental distress, and a strong desire to form new relationships.
Baumeister and Leary argue that much of what human beings do is done in the service of belongingness. They argue that many of the human needs that have been documented, such as the needs for power, intimacy, approval, achievement and affiliation, are all driven by the need to belong. Human culture is compelled and conditioned by pressure to belong and this need to belong and form attachments is universal among us humans.
And this need to belong has its roots in evolution. In order for our ancestors to reproduce and survive it was essential that they establish social bonds. From an evolutionary selection perspective we now possess internal mechanisms that direct us into lasting relationships and social bonds.
One of the great mysteries of evolutionary science is how and why the human brain got to be so large. Brain size generally increases with body size across the animal kingdom. Elephants have huge brains while mice have tiny ones. But humans are the great exception to this rule. Given the size of our bodies, our brains should be much smaller—but they are by far the largest in the animal kingdom relative to our body size. The question is why.
Scientists have debated this question for a long time, but the research of anthropologist Robin Dunbar is fairly conclusive on this point. Dunbar has found that the strongest predictor of a species’ brain size—specifically, the size of its neocortex, the outermost layer—is the size of its social group. It is entirely possible that we have big brains in order to socialise! Scientists think the first hominids with brains as large as ours appeared about 600,000-700,000 years ago in Africa. Known as Homo heidelbergensis, they are believed to be the ancestors of Homo sapiens and the Neanderthals. Revealingly, they appear to be the first hominids to have had division of labour (they worked together to hunt), central campsites, and they may have been the first to bury their dead.
One of the most exciting findings to emerge from neuroscience in recent years underlines the brain’s inherently social nature. When neuroscientists monitor what’s going on in someone’s brain, they are typically interested in what happens in it when people are involved in an active task, like doing a math problem or reaching for a ball. But neuroscientists have looked more closely at what the brain does during non-active moments, when we’re chilling out and the brain is at rest. Every time we are not engaged in an active task—like when we take a break between two math problems—the brain falls into a neural configuration called the “default network.” When you have down time, even if it’s just for a second, this brain system comes on automatically.
What’s remarkable about the default network, according to social psychologist and neuroscientist Matthew Lieberman, is that it looks almost identical to another brain configuration—the one used for social thinking or “making sense of other people and ourselves.” He writes: “The default network directs us to think about other people’s minds—their thoughts, feelings, and goals.” Whenever it has a free moment, the human brain has an automatic reflex to go social. Why would the brain, which forms only 2 percent of our body weight but consumes 20 percent of its energy, use its limited resources on social thinking, rather than conserving its energy by relaxing?”
Evolution only makes bets if there are payoffs—and when it comes to being social, there are many benefits. Having strong social bonds is as good for you as quitting smoking. Connecting with other people, even in the most basic ways, also makes you happier—especially when you know they need your help. One study of adults found that the brain’s reward centre, which turns on when people feel pleasure, was more active when people gave $10 to charity than when they received $10.
On the other side though, our motivation for belongingness can get us into pickles. When we experience interpersonal strife we often contemplate walking away rather than sticking it out, however, finding a relationship with similar depth is not an easy task. If we always end every relationship thinking that we can swap-out the old for a more positive one, we would find ourselves in a constant state of seeking and never experiencing and this would conflict with our fundamental need to belong.
This explains why so many of us are apt to hold on to destructive relationships. The fact that some people display an unwillingness to leave an abusive partner conveys the strength and power of our need to belong. Any threat to social attachments can have the capacity to lead to anxiety, depression, jealousy and loneliness. When we feel anxious at the thought of losing an important relationship, we may feel depressed when the connection ends and then feel lonely because we no longer have the important relationship. One such example of this is the death of a loved one. Some researchers even conceptualise grief not as a reaction to the death, but as breaking the connection with another individual.
And by all means, research shows us that pain caused from social connections is real pain. Research has repeated shown that the feelings of heartbreak can be similar to that of physical pain. This pain is caused by the hormonal triggering of the sympathetic activation activation system (region where flight-or-flight stress takes place) and the parasympathetic nervous system. To the brain, social pain feels a lot like physical pain—a broken heart can feel like a broken leg. The more rejected the participants report feeling, the more activity there was in the part of the brain that processes the distress of physical pain.
These studies are no doubt provocative and counter-intuitive. A broken leg and a broken heart seem like very different forms of pain. But there are evolutionary reasons why our brains process social pain the way they process physical pain. Pain is a sign that something is wrong. Social pain signals that we are all alone—that we are vulnerable—and need to either form new connections or rekindle old ones to protect ourselves against the many threats that are out there.
What makes me sad though, is that despite our evolutionary, biological and psychological needs for connection and belonging, we seem to be sacrificing our relationships more and more. Across the board, people are increasingly sacrificing their personal relationships for the pursuit of wealth. The American Freshman survey has been tracking the values of college students since the mid-1960s. The survey is a good barometer of social and cultural change and it shows how far we've come in prioritizing material values over social ones. In 1965, college freshman said that “starting a family” and “helping others” were more important life goals than being “very well off financially.” By the eighties, it was the reverse: “helping others” and “starting a family” were less important to college freshman than making a lot of money. In 2012, freshmen prioritizing being “very well-off financially” peaked at 81 percent, the highest that number has been in the survey’s history.
But here’s something ironic. When economists put a price tag on our relationships, we get a concrete sense of just how valuable our social connections are—and how devastating it is when they are broken. If you volunteer at least once a week, the increase to your happiness is like moving from a yearly income of $20,000 to $75,000. If you have a friend that you see on most days, it’s like earning $100,000 more each year. Simply seeing your neighbours on a regular basis gets you $60,000 a year more. On the other hand, when you break a critical social tie—here, in the case of getting divorced—it’s like suffering a $90,000 per year decrease in your income.
So, not only is our need to belong and connect with others a human need, it will make us feel richer. Let's get connected peeps!
Happy Mental Health Month our friends!
Yesterday, marked the beginning of the month in which we focus on the psychological wellbeing of ALL of us Australians. And the theme for 2017 is ‘Share the Journey’, highlighting the importance of connecting with others for our physical and psychological health, and survival.
When we feel connected, valued and loved by others it gives us a sense of security, support, purpose and happiness. Close connections and good relationships with others allow us to enjoy the good times in our lives and also help us deal with the hard experiences we face. This is important for all of us. Unfortunately in today’s society, we have many demands on our attention and time, and more people experience loneliness in Australia than ever before. For those experiencing or living with mental illness, loneliness can be far worse as individuals can face social exclusion, stigma and discrimination. As social beings, this can affect all aspects of our wellbeing.
And it’s more than just our feelings of connection and sense of safety and support. Hanging out with those around us is vital for our physical survival. Research has shown that:
- Social connection is a greater determinant to health than obesity, smoking and high blood pressire.
- Strong social connection leads to a 50% increased chance of longevity.
- Social connection strengthens out immune system, helps us recover from disease faster, and may even lengthen our life!
- People who feel more connected to others have lower rates of anxiety and depression than the general population.
Despite the clear importance for health and survival, sociological research suggests that social connectedness is waning at an alarming rate. A revealing sociological study showed that the modal number of close confidantes (i.e., people with whom one feels comfortable sharing a personal problem) people claimed to have in 1985 was only three. In 2004 it dropped to one, with 25% of of those surveyed saying that they have no one to confide in. This suggests that one in four people that we meet may have no one they call a close friend! This decline in social connectedness may explain reported increases in loneliness, isolation, and alienation and may be why studies are finding that loneliness represents one of the leading reasons people seek psychological therapy.
Here at Hope Street Cards, we’re totes on board with this year’s theme for Mental Health Month. To encourage us all to connect with others to continue our journey towards better mental health, we’ll be sharing ideas and insights around this theme all month on the blog. We’ve also got a couple of extra surprises coming your way to celebrate the wonder of social connectedness of us social creatures. Stay tuned …