The news has featured human connectivity in seemingly endless variety lately—from discussing the negative effects of social distancing and quarantines on our mental health to the creative ways people are reaching out and staying in touch.
Like it or not, the data is in: we are indeed hardwired for connection and social interactions.
This should not be a surprise. If God is a community of love, and, as discussed in a previous post, we are made in His image, it makes sense that humans are neurologically and biologically built to exist and grow within a community.
From social synapses to neurochemistry
Before diving into the science, keep this in mind: revealing or discovering an evolutionary or neurobiological basis of human behaviour or emotions in no way reduces them to the mere firing of neurons or the action of neurochemicals within specific neural networks. In other words, we are more than the sum of our parts!
The 2017 World Science Festival hosted a panel discussion with the title “The Social Synapse: Neuroscience and the Roots of Human Connections.” The social synapse is the locus of human connectedness, and it is this which forms the basis of human culture. The main hallmarks of “culture” proposed by the panelists are these:
- Humans acquire knowledge and skills from others.
- Humans express that knowledge by creating tools and technology to solve problems and to make life better for other humans.
- This shared knowledge is used “iteratively” to build better tools and technology.
- Knowledge is communicated through a system of symbolic representation (language).
- Human culture also creates institutions, rules, and beliefs.
- There is a rich diversity of the habits, customs, ways of communicating information, the nature of relationships, and normative ways for expressing emotions found throughout the world in various community settings, including the family.
Within the discussion, the panelists presented fascinating examples of animal learning and creativity, but they all agreed that the building of human culture exceeds any abilities displayed by other animals, however intelligent they might be.
In a fascinating talk on the neurobiology of emotions at last year’s Society of Catholic Scientists conference, Dr. Sonsoles de Lacalle from Ohio University presented evidence that our connectedness has biological roots.
Using an example of just one hormone, oxytocin, Dr. de Lacalle revealed its role as the biological root of male and female connectedness. Not only does blocking the action of oxytocin disrupt partner “bonding,” but separation from a loved one causes a measurable reduction of oxytocin levels, resulting in anxiety and depression. (These negative conditions then can be reversed with an infusion of oxytocin!)
In her talk, Dr. de Lacalle also referred to the work of Dr. Ruth Feldman, author and founder of a research lab whose primary purpose is to study the neural networks involved in human attachment. Dr. Feldman concluded one of those studies by stating that a biologically based evolutionary perspective is insufficient to explain attachment and can only provide a “mechanistic understanding.” This limitation must be supplemented “by focusing on the individual with his or her experiences, expressions, and aspirations.” She calls for a multidisciplinary approach with these words:
“To study the neurobiology of human attachment, one must season the objectivity of science with the wisdom of the clinician, foresight of the philosopher, and creativity of the artist into a unified endeavor that can shed new light on the loftiest—and oldest— of human experiences: ‘love.’” -Dr. Ruth Feldman
Empathy, compassion, and human flourishing
To hear a call from a neuroscientist to focus on the individual, the human person, is a refreshing one. Fr. Spitzer would wholeheartedly agree: when he speaks about the third level or contributive happiness, he discusses the significance of empathy and compassion.
Empathy is a strong power of connection or unity with another person that breaks down our barriers of autonomy and egocentricity. Empathy makes doing the good for the other just as easy, if not easier, than doing good for ourselves. -Fr. Robert Spitzer
Even though it is viewed from a utilitarian perspective, the significance of empathy and compassion is not lost on the scientific community, as discussed in this study which highlights their role in pro-social behaviour.
God is love
Human connections build culture—not only tools and technology, but art, music, architecture, and literature—and provide a foundation for human flourishing. When seasoned with empathy and compassion, Love is made manifest through our human interactions.
It is not good for man to be alone.
Man is incomplete when he is alone. Our need for community is so strong we will even endure flawed and broken relationships because the alternative is too hard for us to bear. But any relationship that is not based in love, a mutual self-giving, is doomed to fail. -Deacon Lawrence Klimecki, The Way of Beauty blog