Wired to Connect

Positive social relations affect virtually every level and area of human experience. Well, what if we ask the question: where does it all come from? Why is it that interactions with others can supercharge our abilities, optimize our performance, and better our well-being?

Different fields of research today are weaving a comprehensive answer. And it’s actually one that makes a lot of sense: human beings are hardwired to connect, or in other words, we are connected by nature.

When you perform an action or experience an emotion, specific neurons in your brain fire. But it turns out that when you look at someone else performing that action, a set of the same neurons will still fire, as though you were making the action yourself. These are the recently discovered “mirror neurons,” and they essentially connect us with others, as they enable us to mirror them, empathize and experience what the other is doing. This is why we cringe when we observe someone in pain, or get emotional in movies and so on.

And like these mirror neurons, it turns out we have many built-in biological mechanisms that help us, sort of, simulate what others are going through. 

Your Vagus nerve, which begins at the top of your spinal cord and reaches all the way down to your spleen and liver, is unique to mammals. It helps you use your voice, coordinate breathing and heart rate, regulate digestive processes as well as several other functions. 

Berkeley researchers wanted to know what happens to the vagus nerve when you evoke empathy in people. So they showed their subjects imagery of other people suffering or being prideful, they had them listen to people share sad or inspiring stories and experiences. they found out that the more you feel compassion, the stronger your vagus nerve fires. The more you feel pride, by the way, the weaker it fires. So we actually have a physiology that tracks the feeling of your common humanity with other people from different backgrounds, ethnicities, or political views.

And, research now shows that your vagal tone, a measure indicating how well your vagus nerve is working, increases as you experience positive moments of connection with others. Fascinating.

When you look at a young toddler and smile or make some facial expression, many times they would mimic your expression in a really cute way. They have a natural social mimicking facility that doesn’t require any independent thinking. And guess what, adults do it too. If you slow down time and track people’s facial muscles, you’ll see that they spontaneously mimic the emotional expressions they’re seeing. Moreover, it’s been shown that when you limit someone’s ability to mimic a face in front of them, say by having them bite on something so their facial muscles are constrained, they won’t be as good at interpreting the faces they see. In other words, our inborn, facial mimicking ability helps us understand others around us.

Scientists set out to explore what happens in our brains and our bodies when we feel connected or disconnected from our social group. One study found that when you feel rejected by your  social environment, your body secretes the cortisol hormone, which over time can cause anxieties, attention disorders, and even memory losses in the long run. Researchers call this “social pain” because brain scans show the brain responds to this in a similar way to how it responds to actual, physical pain. It’s just as tangible, that a Tylenol pill, which you take for a headache, alleviates that social pain as well. 

On the other hand, when we feel accepted and welcomed in our social group, our body secretes oxytocin, which lowers our stress, reduces pain, improves healing, and more. And when we express ourselves and our opinion is appreciated, the pleasure centers in our brain are activated. And social validation actually activates rewarding centers in our brain, increases dopamine and serotonin levels, and allows us to let go of emotional fixations. 

So, these were just a few examples showing how we’re wired to connect. And with the wealth of data we have today, this review could go on a lot longer, with every new finding being more fascinating than the previous one, but the central line is very clear – we are connected – and that explains why experiencing and nurturing positive social relations is at the core of everything that makes us happy, healthy and successful. 

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