Linda Graham MFT looks at recent research in social neuroscience from the new book, Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect. Not being connected socially is literally bad for your health.
The need to connect goes back to being born. Human infants, with their large brains compared to body size, are born prematurely to get through birth canal. They then spend a longer time maturing their brain than any other mammal. During this time of dependency, brain development happens in the context of interacting with other brains; infants have to be able to make their caregivers be willing to stay connected to them for survival.
According to Mathew Lieberman, author of Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect, “Basic pain and pleasure motives have been co-opted to serve our social lives. The single most important need of an infant mammal is to be continuously cared for by an adult. Without this, all other needs of the infant go unmet, and it will die. Creating ways to keep us connected is therefore the central problem of mammalian evolution. By making threats to our social connection truly painful, our brains produce adaptive responses to these threats (for example, an infant’s crying, which get a caregiver’s attention.) And by making the care of our children intrinsically rewarding and reinforcing, our brains ensure that we will be there for our children even before we are needed.”
Lieberman suggests re-ordering Abraham Maslow’s widely accepted hierarchy of needs. In Maslow’s model, physiological needs like food, water, and sleep are the foundation of the pyramid of development. Then come safety needs like physical shelter and bodily health. Then come social needs, then needs for self-esteem and self-actualization.
He suggests the infant’s social needs for connecting with a caregiver who is committed to meeting the infant’s biological needs – food, water, sleep, shelter, safety – is paramount. No connection, no survival. He says love and belonging are NOT conveniences we can live without. Research into social rewards – both receiving the respect, affection and care of others, and the sense of reward we feel when we care for or treat another well, activate the ventral medial pre-frontal cortex of the brain, the structure essential in developing secure attachment among mothers and infants. As 60 years of attachment research attests; connection is the platform for the rest of existence, thriving and flourishing.
Capacities to perceive, respond to, shape our relationship style and sense of self based on social pain and social pleasure are essential to attachment lifelong. Lieberman suggests the circuitry we use for navigating our worlds socially is very distinct from the circuitry we use for understanding our world rationally. Though they don’t necessarily feel any differently, that’s a “blind spot” in our perception, In fact, they operate somewhat like a neural see saw. The more the brain is operating from the rational system the less it is from the social and vice versa. The more someone is focused on a problem, the more they might be likely to alienate other people around them who could help solve the problem. Conversely, the more we focus on relating to the people around us sometimes it can feel like we’re not getting anything done.
The social motivation for connection is present in all of us from infancy and the need to be socially connected and the pleasure we take in caring for others extends beyond birth throughout our lives to the end of our days. The severing of a social bond – whether it’s the end of a long term relationship or the death of a loved one – is one of the greatest risk factors for depression and anxiety. Our social bonds are linked to how long we live.
Having a poor social network is literally as bad for your health as smoking 2 packs of cigarettes a day!3