Why social connection is a matter of survival

Why social connection is a matter of survival

Social connection is a matter of survival not preference. Our clever evolutionary design has urged us to connect, ensuring the proliferation of the species. The need to belong is in fact just as critical to your wellbeing as having food and shelter.

Social connection is not an optional extra to living a good life. In an age where the individual is glorified and being part of the collective is scorned as being unexceptional, perhaps we need to rethink our view of the herd as not just being a good thing for our wellbeing but as being essential to our very being. After all, there is safety in numbers.

Pack mentality is a good thing

In nature we see the effectiveness of the herd or pack working together. Animals of the same species bond, reside and hunt as a collective, and this ensures the survival of all in that community. The saying “the whole is greater than the individual parts” is perfectly apt here. Wolf packs, lion prides and dolphin pods form social groups for life. In fact, their intrinsic emotional bonds are just as strong as their physiological survival strategies. We know that animals emotionally bond and even perish from broken hearts. An elephant mother will despair over a dying calf and the whole herd will grieve in sympathy. It is interesting to note that while “herd” is the more commonly used collective noun for elephants, a “memory of elephants” is also a recognised term. These gentle giants are famed for never forgetting the ones fallen or left behind. This is not survival, but evolutionary love.

In the UK, there is now a Minister for Loneliness…

We too have an evolutionary need to form bonds and hence the reason our ancient ancestors formed tribes. This has ensured reproductive success and guaranteed our longevity. In recent times we have abandoned this idea of the tribe and extolled the so-called virtues of the individual. But we see the results of this thinking in the fractured society in which we reside. As 19th century philosopher Henry David Thoreau said, “the mass of men live lives of quiet desperation.” This has now reached epidemic global proportions.

In the UK, there is now a Minister for Loneliness, and in India a Minister for Yoga, and this is in reaction to the disorientation of the disenfranchised citizen who no longer feels a sense of belonging. It’s proven that poor mental health adversely affects the GDP of countries. In the last century, people left their ancestral villages looking for “a better life”, and over time the tribe was eroded and displaced, with people flung to far-off places. The core group splintered. As we all know, once-big families consisting of brothers, aunts, cousins, grandmothers have literally become distant relatives.

Like our own primate cousins we are social beings, designed to live in herd groups working together for the collective good. However, we live in the age of the individual where we aspire to singular achievements and triumphs. Collectivism has been replaced by individualism and this thinking has permeated into our everyday lives. However, like trickle-down economics, it serves the few, not the many. For those of us who don’t have enmeshed family lives or friendship networks, we slip through social cracks and lead lives in isolation — some of us have not been touched in a long time nor been involved in a meaningful conversation. What is truly tragic is that this epidemic is affecting more and more young people who are digitally connected but lead marginalised lives. Spending more and more time alone, this cohort is now the most “at risk” group for suicide, rivalling those at the other end of the age scale who are over 80 and exiting life by their own hand.

Nothing social about social media

The advent of technology is in fact rewiring that beautifully evolved brain sending the amygdala (that primal part of the ancient limbic brain which processes emotions) into sensory shutdown. Millennials are messing with millennia of evolutionary design.

These handheld menaces, aptly called the iPhone as there’s no “we” about it, are rewiring these impressionable young brains to not socialise, as generations before them did through necessity. Steve Jobs has a lot to answer for. Toddlers are predominantly interacting and are addicted to their screens, and this is where they obtain their soothing and comfort from. Parents are relying on these digital babysitters so that they can peer down at their own screens. This is a social calamity in the making and it is undoing thousands of years of evolution in quick time. The rise of narcissism, hopelessness, loneliness and the need for instant gratification, as well as the escalating rates of mood disorders such ADHD and anger management issues such as oppositional defiance disorder (ODD), are testament to the growing mental health malaise affecting the youngest members of society.

When young people are alone in their room, literally left to their own devices, they may not act with a moral sensibility, and their sense of responsibility for either themselves or others remains unchecked.

The oft-quoted simplistic solution encouraging kids to put their phones down and to revert to climbing trees and scraping knees could do with modification. Climb trees, but do it with your friends. There’s a lot to be said for hanging out together in little gangs, playing soccer in the street and seeking out adventure as old-fashioned author Enid Blyton endorsed with her Famous Five and Secret Seven books.

Now this is not a harking back to nostalgia or a sentimental longing for a time long gone. While Ms Blyton and authors of her generation may have not been aware of the science of social psychology (the study of how the behaviour of the individual is affected by others in the social environment) they knew that we are intrinsically motivated and influenced by others. They championed the positive effects of group effort and how cooperation works to benefit all. In many ways, these fictional kids showed their readers how to get along in life. These characters also exemplified how the individual behaves or reacts when in a social environment. When young people are alone in their room, literally left to their own devices, they may not act with a moral sensibility, and their sense of responsibility for either themselves or others remains unchecked. Inevitably, behaviour is affected when we have to interact with others. These now seemingly kitsch novels also spoke of the value of real-life friendship as opposed to the virtual version fuelled by likes and unknown followers.

Evolutionary science is no fiction

More and more scientists are now investigating the primal brain and how such networks within the brain system have evolved to ensure our survival. American neuroscientist Matthew Lieberman, author of groundbreaking book in this area, Social: Why Our Brains are Wired to Connect, asserts that we are fundamentally social beings. He believes “our brain is wired to feel pain and pleasure depending what is going on socially in our lives. Our ability to think socially is so essential to our survival that evolution gave us a separate brain system for just this type of thinking.”

In his book he explains that there is a network in the brain where “social thinking” occurs alongside analytical thinking which takes place in the prefrontal cortex. It is this part of the brain that gets all the attention. But he is interested in that other part where the amygdala resides and which is now the focus of social neuroscience. The amygdala is critical for emotional and social intelligence as it evaluates data and assigns values to it — it is the place where perception and interpretation happen. It processes behaviour and differentiates between what is the norm and what isn’t. People who sit on the autism spectrum, for instance, are lacking in this facility, and as a result and through no fault of their own often don’t display acceptable social behaviours. Lieberman humorously points out that those of us with larger amygdalas actually have more friends than those with a lesser amygdala proportionally. Now that’s food for thought.

We are designed to congregate and are drawn to the collective, especially when we share a higher goal or purpose.

It appears that we have much to learn from this evolutionary design. For instance, while the analytical brain gets all the plaudits for its cognitive ability, the social brain has a lot to teach its stablemate. Lieberman cites the example of social-based learning. He says, “In the classroom being social is the enemy of learning. But if you learn to teach someone else, you actually learn better than if you learn merely to take the test.” This is a phenomenal discovery and is such a valuable insight not just for educational purposes but for how we interact in life. The social brain learns and teaches more effectively than the analytical brain. Collaboration is the key to better understanding and outcomes. Results are actually optimised using the social brain approach. Corporates and governments which are primarily results-focused could learn a lot from this systemic thinking using both sides of the brain.

The brain is a marvellous system, and while we think of it as a resource to make our lives better, bigger and brighter we forget that it is our survival system. Evolutionary psychology contrasts with social psychology, in that it is the study of how patterns of behaviour have evolved through natural selection, which is not dissimilar to how our genetic or physical characteristics have evolved over time. Through natural selection, the term coined by Charles Darwin, we have adapted behaviours over the millennia to optimise reproductive success as well as survival, and these behaviours have been passed down from generation to generation.

This explains why, for instance, a child never having seen a spider or snake is instinctively panicked and scared, knowing that this is a threat (even when viewed in an enclosure or under glass). Interestingly enough, research shows that they are not as scared of other predatory animals such as tigers or lions and do not experience that heightened response. Evolutionary psychology has an explanation for this. These bigger predatory animals were easier to spot in hunter-gatherer times and therefore escape was easier, whereas the spider or snake unwittingly appears out of nowhere, causing a need for an instantaneous response to ensure survival.

Attachment is not just a theory

One of the core tenets of Buddhism is non-attachment. Being defined by or attached to the material life or even to relationships is regarded as the road to suffering. Upon scrutiny, this philosophy makes perfect sense, especially in this day and age where we are defined by what we have and how we look. Attachment, it is believed, prevents you from attaining that deeper insight to reach enlightenment. This is an aspiration many of us cannot achieve in its entirety, although its premise is very useful when dealing with life’s travails. When we release ourselves from clinging to desired outcomes we can live in the present and achieve the perspective to live with acceptance and equanimity.

But it is interesting to note that a Buddhist monastery is filled with monks. Even when they are in enforced silence, they are together in that silence. They eat, pray and meditate together. And there is nothing more moving than listening to their chanting in unison. We are designed to congregate and are drawn to the collective, especially when we share a higher goal or purpose.

From the moment a baby comes into the world, it clings to its mother. It is assumed that the mother only provides the essential food and protection the baby needs to survive, but survival is contingent on so much more. The mother provides comfort, love and affection, and these bonds are absolutely primal and essential for the very existence of life. A mother’s love is instinctual and this has been programmed into us as part of our evolutionary design as it ensures ongoing reproductive success.

For those mothers suffering from postnatal depression where they cannot bond with their child, this in itself puts the child at risk. Now we have access to psychological support and even medication, but in times when there was not that safety net dire consequences resulted. When we lived in bigger tribes in ancient times, a mother who could not provide that comfort was replaced by another member of the tribe who would effectively become the surrogate mother.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs has at the very bottom of his pyramid the essential physiological need for food and shelter. Sitting above that sits the need for safety and security. It is only in the middle or third tier where love and belonging reside. Many neuroscientists and evolutionary psychologists would argue this point, asserting that the love and connection tier should be regarded as a primary and essential need. From the moment we exit the womb we need deep bonds of love and connection to survive. We know that children who suffer from abandonment or rejection in those early years have lifelong emotional issues. The upper two tiers of esteem and finally self-actualisation are indeed more about thriving than surviving, but self-love and regard can only occur when we have experienced it from others.

That famous song from the 1970s by the Hollies may have been more scientifically pertinent than its primary purpose of being a popular love song to woo swooning love-struck girls: “Sometimes all I need is the air that I breathe and to love you.” If we were to apply this inadvertent insight to Maslow’s pyramid you would actually have the physiological and connection needs sitting side by side on the bottom tier.

Connection is a matter of survival

Love and connection can never be regarded as an optional extra. It is fundamental to life on earth. Evolutionary design informs us that being social is not merely about having more fun or someone to talk to at a party but is intrinsic to your very survival.

Technology is hijacking and supplanting this need for actual connection and our brains are going haywire. It is time to plug back into your real social networks and to know that it is critical to belong to each other rather than to a service provider. Only humans can provide the network to be in service of each other.

Marie Rowland

Marie Rowland

Marie Rowland is a therapist in private practice on Sydney’s northern beaches helping people resolve the underlying issues that perpetuate conflict or disconnectedness so they can create meaningful and happy lives. Marie speaks at conferences, forums and community events on a variety of topics from wellbeing and positive psychology to practical philosophy.

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