We are wired to connect to each other. Daniel Goleman’s new book, Social Intelligence, has uncovered new research on social neuroscience identifying brain cells, termed mirror neurons, which actually link us brain to brain in social interactions. The complex neural circuitry that activates in the brain in every social interaction – from the smallest exchanges with a store clerk to the complex negotiations with our life partners – not only helps you know what is happening in the interaction, but also cues you on how to respond to keep interactions civil and functional.
This also explains why other people’s emotional lives are as contagious as the common cold. Studies have shown that a single individual who is either happy or sad can change an entire group’s collective mood for better or worse in a matter of minutes. So it is not your imagination that you start feeling bad shortly after your partner or kid walks in shrouded in gloom. In my household of six, many of whom are growing adolescents, the mood factor is anything but stable. So while I might be wired with a social brain as part of my biological imperative, maintaining strong social connections is hard work and requires practice.
I think our relationship-avoidant nature might have been one of the unstated impetuses for the Internet revolution. The digital communication devices that have come to dominate our social interactions don’t ask anything of our social brain, which explains why people will do and say things on their emails and text messages that they would never do in a face to face interaction. Parental concerns over the obsessive texting that dominates teenage life with kids continuously splitting their attention from the people they are with and the continuous inane conversations that are buzzing the phones is just the tip of the iceberg. Research suggests that the idea of becoming a “crackberry” is not just a psychological phenomenon. The continuous rush of dopamine during instant communications can actually create a physical addiction with the classic withdrawal symptoms.
Ironically, it is our need for social interaction that drives our obsession to connect digitally. Continuous messaging makes us feel good and important, even if most of the communications that are exchanged is just banter. Flirting has taken on new meaning for the younger generation where instead of a look, they get a text message. The devices that we believed would enhance our ability to communicate and connect actually interfere with the real relationships we crave. The ease of two dimensional, digital communications make it natural to prioritize them over our real relationships, because they don’t engage your social brain the way face to face encounters do. But the danger and risks of substituting digital relations for the real thing is deep and pervasive in our culture. The number of relationships that have been terminated by text message is a small marker for the lack of practice and skill building that the new millennial generation is cultivating in developing full relationships.
Sexuality too, is impacted by our new and growing dependence on digital communications. The new phenomenon of “sexting” where over 30% of more than 1,200 young people reported sending nude photos is another manifestation of technological “connecting” without the wisdom of the social brain. The same girls who would send their naked body over digital technology would never consider stripping in front of the same eyes. Even more disturbing is the social brain asleep at the wheel, with a recent survey showing over 66% of 18-24-year-olds reported texting while driving, which is provoking many states to institute laws prohibiting cell phone use while driving.
Boundaries need to be drawn, distinguishing between the work of relating and the convenience of chatting or texting. We need to be vigilant to the human moment when we are right next to someone and create a virtual boundary around the machine in our hand. The skill of being present to the moment and the activities that develop our social brain functioning happen in the midst of attending to our primary relationships, face to face. Most of the messages that take us away from the people we love most are inconsequential and can wait.
Our relationships mold not just our experience, but our biology. The mirroring that happens in human interacting shapes us in ways as subtle as sharing humor and as profoundly as how our immune system activates in the continuous battle against bacteria and viruses. The social interaction we crave heals us. Now more than ever we need to teach and learn that the relationships that fill our real time, real life are the priority. They are the only means we have to learning that life is a social event, not a virtual one.