The Hermit: An Evolutionary Aberration?

“Our survival hinges on social interaction, and that is not only true of the murky evolutionary past. Over the last decade huge population studies have shown that social integration — the feeling of being part of a cohesive group — fosters immunity and resilience. How accepted and supported we feel affects the biological pathways that skew the genetic expression of a disease, while feeling isolated “leaves a loneliness imprint” on every cell, says the American social neuroscientist John Cacioppo. Women with breast cancer who have expansive, active, face-to-face social networks, for example, are four times as likely to survive their illness as women with sparser social connections. How might that work? Research led by Steve Cole at the University of California, Los Angeles shows that social contact switches on and off genes that regulate the rate of tumour growth (and the level of cancer-killing lymphocytes in our bloodstreams).
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Fifty-year-old men with active friendships are less likely to have heart attacks than more solitary men, and people who have had a stroke are better protected from grave complications by an in-person social network than they are by medication. Working with a large British sample, the Australian researchers Catherine and Alex Haslam have found that people with active social lives recover faster after an illness than those who are solitary – their MRIs show greater tissue repair – and that older people in England who participated in social gatherings kept their memories longer.

And it’s not just about pensioners. When the daily habits of nearly 17,000 utility workers in France were monitored throughout the 1990s, researchers discovered that their degree of social involvement was a good way to predict who would still be alive at the end of the decade.

The studies on the benefits of face-to-face social contact, almost all of them published during the last decade, leave us with the question: why isn’t there more buzz about getting together? One reason is that when it comes to what drives health and happiness, we’re obsessed with more concrete concerns: food, money, exercise, drugs. We recognise that cigarettes, salt, animal fat and being overweight can shorten our lifespan, while antibiotics, physical activity and the right diet can prolong it. This knowledge has changed the way most of us eat, work and spend our leisure time. But despite evidence that confirms the transformative power of social contact, our routines have become more solitary. Since the late 80s, when social isolation was first earmarked as a risk for premature death in a landmark article in Science magazine, the number of people who say they feel isolated has doubled if not trebled, according to population surveys in Europe, the US and Australia.
The questions how and why loneliness has increased have been much debated. Communities have disbanded for a variety of reasons. And while the internet allows us to ignore geography in our search for the like-minded, it has further stripped away the need to talk to our neighbours. Most commercial and social transactions have migrated online, where they’re cheaper and quicker, and for many people, the workplace and the classroom are now virtual, too. If electronic media informs and entertain us, who needs all that forced person-to-person chit-chat?

Certainly digital computation has eclipsed raw brain power when it comes to searching, gathering and sorting information. But when it comes to relationships, our electronic devices can give us the illusion of intimacy without the hormonal rush of the real deal.
In 2012, the University of Wisconsin psychologist Leslie Seltzer and her team asked pre teen girls to solve maths and word problems in front of an audience. Before testing them, the researchers measured the participants’ salivary cortisol, a hormone that registers levels of stress. They were then divided into four groups. Each received a different type of social contact immediately after the test: one quarter of the group had a visit from their mother, one quarter got a phone call from her, one quarter an encouraging text, and one quarter had no communication at all. After the test, the cortisol levels were measured once again, along with the levels of oxytocin in the blood. The girls who saw their mothers in person became the most relaxed afterwards, as shown by the biggest drop in their cortisol levels. A spike in oxytocin, often called the “cuddle chemical”, showed they felt reassured. That phenomenon, though attenuated, was shown in girls who heard their mother’s voice on the phone. But a text from their mother had no impact. There were no physiological signs that the participants felt less anxiety than they had before. Indeed, their hormone levels were indistinguishable from the girls who had no contact at all.
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Recent MRI studies led by neuroscientist Elizabeth Redcay tell us that personal contact elicits greater activity in brain areas linked to social problem-solving, attention and reward than a remote connection. When the identical information is transmitted via a recording, something gets lost.

Just as we all require food, water and sleep to survive, we all need genuine human contact. Digital devices are great for sharing information, but not great for deepening human connections and a sense of belonging. More socially cohesive societies – such as the Blue Zone of Sardinia – suggest that we should use our mobile devices to augment, not to replace, face-to-face interaction – that is, if we want to live longer, healthier and happier lives.

Britons of all ages now devote more time to digital devices and screens than to any other activity except sleeping; a lot of those hours are spent alone. No app exists that is as effective as one year with a highly trained teacher, or the cumulative effect of regular family meals spent together.
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A quarter of Britons now say they feel emotionally unconnected to others, and a third do not feel connected to the wider community. If men are to live as long as women, if urbanites hope to live as long as Mediterranean village dwellers, they need to live in a place where they know and talk to their neighbours. But there is no need to trash your smartphone and move to rural Sardinia. Once you recognise that you need more than pixelated, electronic ties, and more than a handful of close friends and family to keep you healthy and happy, you can stay where you are. By cultivating a community of diverse, person-to-person relationships, you can build your own village, right where you live.

An extract from Susan Pinker: “Why face-to-face contact matters in our digital age”
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Susan Pinker “The Village Effect: Why Face-to-Face Contact Matters” [Spiegel & Grau, 2014]
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