The most important aspects of life are usually the ones we simply live, and do not notice so much. A good example is air. Vital to our lives, weighs quite a bit- about 15 pounds per square inch- and yet we don’t really feel it, think about it, or notice it.
And so it is with the social nature of being human. We cannot spend a day without interacting with another person. That can take the form of a conversation, or while walking in a crowd not bumping into anyone, or laughing, or hugging, or crying. Each of these seems the most natural of experiences, hardly worthy of appreciation. Who doesn’t talk, or laugh, or cry, or hug, or walk without crashing into others? How special can such things be if everyone does them all the time with the barest of effort?
It turns out that social connections between people are some of the most complex and wondrous phenomena that life presents. Most of life has little or no interaction with other members of their species. There may be fights and matings, but for most of the day, most life forms live, and do not interact. Other forms of life will form bonds between individuals, such as birds and their mates and babies, but often these interactions are limited to that group.
Only a handful of types of life form vast social networks across their species. The great explorer of social networks in life forms, E.O. Wilson, was the first to describe the unique qualities of these vast social network species, and coined the term eusocial. He states in all of life there are only a handful of species that are eusocial. These include ants, bees, termites, two mole like rodents, some shrimp, and humans, that’s about it. The extraordinary power of a mass of individuals cooperating is in full view in any ant farm or bee hive, but we tend not to think of humanity as a colony or hive. And we aren’t. Our social interactions are not those of various insects, but still quite intricate and woven into the very being of our lives. We are familiar with the daily experience of deep, intense social connectivity- love of parents, family, friends, and working with partners and colleagues. But we tend to not see or appreciate the depth and complexity involved.
To connect to another person, one mind must have some minimal ability to be interested in doing so, have a fairly reliable sense of what the other person’s level of and sort of interest is in you, and how best to cue a conversation or interaction that can work for both you and the other person. All the work our mind to accomplish these tasks is referred to in the study of the mind as social cognition. And social cognition is a red hot area of interest in neuroscience. Some feel that how our mind connects to other people is by far the most complex category of thinking or cognition there is.
As with all other functions of our mind, we learn to appreciate how our minds work when we see a newborn gain the set of skills we tend to take for granted. So it is with social cognition. The great journey of learning to connect to others that happens in typical development starts before birth, as the baby-to-be develops a sense of the sounds, smells, and rhythms of their mother. Birth initiates eye contact which by a few weeks of age can be sustained an purposeful from baby to parent. By 6-8 weeks of age most infants can smile in a way that moves the parents and family receiving that smile.
But it really is around 3-5 months of age that a full flower of social interactivity bursts into full view and potency. So many parents marvel at the whole experience of their 4 month old baby. Their whole body seems to quiver with the excitement of connecting. Their eyes bug out and seem huge, they not only smile, but burst into laughter, when the connection links their legs start kicking in pure joy. Anyone one the receiving end can only be charmed, dazzled, moved. It’s social power in its purest form.
This all comes to mind because during a recent and wonderful visit with our Hong Kong family in New England last week, we spent a great time with our grandchildren, now including Rebecca who was 3 and a half months old. And she is doing just what was described. When awake and content, she loves nothing more than scanning around to see who will play. She cannot roll, or sit, or crawl, too young for all that, but she can still play. If you are lucky it will be your eyes she latches on to. When your eyes connect, her eyes do indeed get huge, she starts kicking her legs in glee, and she beams a huge smile, even at times laughing or crying out in joy.
It really is a very pure moment of joy, and a deep reminder of how basic, really essential, social connection with others is. A recent review looked at the physical nature of laughter and found some relevant items:
- Laughter is a universal sounds made by humanity. Every culture laughs and the sounds are easily understood in any language.
- Laughter is an essential element of social connection, between friends, co-workers, couples, family members, really any people who want to connect in any way.
- Laughter moves our neurons and hormones in directions opposite to the direction they go when the body is stressed. This may be part of the explanation for why laughter is starting to be found to improve various measures of health. Makes sense, so many studies have found people with social interactions live longer, healthier lives than people who seek such connections and do not find them.
As we watch our granddaughter jiggle with glee when connecting with us, we are also reminded of the deep connection between emotion and muscle. We tend to think they are very distinct. Muscles are for heavy lifting, intensely challenging physical challenges. But think a moment about any emotion, and try to imagine experiencing it without a muscle moving. Laughter certainly uses up tons of muscle action. Smiling can’t happen without the muscles in the face moving. Just think what downtown Cleveland looked like when the Cavs won Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals. People were waving arms, jumping up and down, that’s what sudden joy looks like. And that’s just what Rebecca looks like when she connects, she is that happy, just as many babies her age are.
There are physical correlates to the muscle-emotion connection. There is a set of nerve structures tucked in the area between brain and spinal cord, deep in the head, called basal ganglia. They play a large role in making sure that when we have a bright idea to move, our muscle actions are smooth and effective. It’s the basal ganglia that initiate movement say when we want to pick up a pen, and make sure all the muscles are organized to get it just right. That is a very different symphony of muscle movement than say lifting a stack of firewood. But our basal ganglia make sure each task gets the right symphony of muscular movement to get it right. The disruption of altered muscle movement is one of the key features of Parkinson’s disease, a condition where parts of the basal ganglia no longer function normally.
But, here is the interesting twist. The basal ganglia also are where you can find areas of our mind that strongly register pleasure. If you have a favorite playlist, you know when a song you really love is about to play. That joy of anticipation happens because of a set of specific neurons in the basal ganglia fire then, and then a separate set nearby fire when the favorite tune is hears. Two different types of joy, both created and experienced a few wires away from where muscle actions are orchestrated.
And so, when you next see a 3 or 4 month old baby light up when their eyes connect with you, appreciate how deep our social cognition goes, it’s not just the eyes, it’s the face, the arms, the legs, and a wash of deep joy that happens. Connecting to another person is at the core of being a person, and we see it in full flower early in life.
- We have a range of thinking and feeling abilities. One of the most extraordinary is the human ability to connect, to respond, to collaborate with others to form loving friendships and family, and powerful work productivities.
- These social connections can only happen if our mind can operate social cognition functions. These functions begin to form before birth, but dramatic progress is made quickly afterwards: eye contact, smiling, and then the full suite of bubbly joyous connection at age 3-4 months.
- One could say connecting to other people is the first of the developmental steps. Smiling and laughing long precede sitting, walking and talking. And these early steps demonstrate how closely linked muscle activity and emotion are as well.
To your health,
Dr. Arthur Lavin