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Human Connection and Brain Health

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Scientist Matthew Lieberman uncovers the neuroscience of human connections and how this impacts our health. According to Lieberman, the importance of social connection is so strong that when we experience social pain our brain hurts in the same way it does when we feel physical pain. ‘Social and physical pain are more similar than we imagine,’ Lieberman said. ‘We don’t expect someone with a broken leg to “just get over it.” Yet when it comes to the pain of social loss, this is a common and mistaken response.’ We should take social pain just as seriously as physical pain.

Research suggests the importance of healthy social interaction can reduce stress and help people with anxiety and depression symptoms. ‘Patients with positive social relationships feel less lonely, more connected and supported when stress happens,’ says Dr Jeanne Lackamp, director of psychiatry and medicine at University Hospitals. From a child to an adult, each life stage can benefit from human interaction, so much so it affects the brain in a positive way. 

Emma Seppala of the Stanford Center for Compassion, Altruism Research and Education, and author of the 2016 book The Happiness Track, wrote: ‘People who feel more connected to others have lower levels of anxiety and depression. Moreover, studies show they also have higher self-esteem, greater empathy for others, are more trusting and cooperative and, as a consequence, others are more open to trusting and cooperating with them.’ This leads us to believe human connection improves not only our mental health but also allows us to develop crucial skills for life, helping us with life’s stages whether that be defined as progressing our careers, attracting a spouse, supporting children, and so on. 

Brene Brown, a professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work, specialising in social connection stated: ‘A deep sense of love and belonging is an irresistible need of all people. We are biologically, cognitively, physically, and spiritually wired to love, to be loved, and to belong. When those needs are not met, we don’t function as we were meant to.’ Studies go even further to show that people who are chronically lonely have significantly more heart disease, are more vulnerable to metastatic cancer, have an increased risk of stroke, and are more likely to develop neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s. Interestingly, however, even with all this science and countless studies, cultures have different beliefs about how important social connection is in our lives. 

The individual within the western world is certainly pressured by social norms and perhaps the opportunistic capitalist framework to look after ‘number one.’ Society sadly programmes us from an early age to look after ourselves and compete against each other, whether it be tests and exams or extra-curricular activities with goals and points. As we get older, this shifts, but still exists. Instead, it is often workplace achievements whether that be defined as a job title, income, or even the opposite end of the spectrum, the most ‘giving back’ type of job and the accolades this brings. Perhaps it isn’t workplace at all, perhaps it’s how many baked goods you made for the kid’s bake sale, how big your house is, how many cars you have, and the list goes on. Either way, one of the most fulfilling elements in life, arguably the most important given all of the scientific findings, is to feel united through human connection and yet this doesn’t seem to be society’s focus.

Society within the Oxford dictionary is defined as ‘a particular community of people who share the same customs, laws, etc.’ Do the building blocks of our society miss out on the most important part – human connection? Older cultures, perhaps considered ‘native’ and less unchanged by technology, tend to have stuck to more tribal ways in terms of living their lives where human connection is more prevalent. Could this mean they suffer less mental illness and are ultimately happier? The basic need to form, grow, and sustain relationships is universal. We are social creatures who crave human interaction rooted in our genetic makeup. Now more than ever, we all need connection, dependable emotional support, and a feeling of belonging. 

Holly Novick is the founder of Soul Sanity.

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