In his recent book, Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships, Daniel Goleman, the Harvard-trained psychologist and New York Times award-winning author, says that bottom line is, “We are wired to connect.” This field of social neuroscience has taken off with the development of neuroimaging techniques such as functional MRI technology, which has allowed us to explore the neural bridge between our brains and the people we interact with. Through social neuroscience we are learning that our relationships affect not just our experiences, but our entire biology and the link is a double-edged sword: nourishing relationships can have a beneficial effect on our overall health, while negative ones can be extremely toxic, affecting our immune system and even which genes get activated.
Researchers are finding that our social interactions even play a role in reshaping our brains through a concept called “neuroplasticity”; this means that repeated life experiences sculpt the shape, size, number, and configuration of neurons and their synaptic connections. Scientists have discovered that our key relationships mold our neural circuitry; in essence, whether we are chronically hurt and angered or emotionally nurtured in our relationships shapes the development and hardwiring of our brain, as well as our immune system and other systems of the body.
An Italian neuroscientist, Giacomo Rizzolatti, discovered “mirror neurons.” These neurons create similar feelings and experiences in us as we watch or listen to other people, or even other people on TV or in a movie. Our mirror neurons fire when we watch someone else, for instance, scratch their head or wipe away a tear, so that a portion of the pattern of neuronal firing in our brain mimics the part of the brain in the person doing the action. This maps the identical information from what we see onto our own motion neurons, letting us participate in the other person’s actions as if we were doing them. So mirror neurons are important in empathy and connection, they let us “feel” other people.
What interests me in particular is Goleman’s argument that this biological influence from person to person suggests new meanings for the life well lived: we can act in ways that are beneficial mentally and physically for others with whom we connect. When we think about the impact of positive versus negative social encounters on our own health and well-being and on other people, we begin to understand how important it is to act in ways that help create optimal emotional states in others, from those who are nearest and dearest to those we encounter casually. Although our 21st century problems are daunting, the new social neuroscience encourages us to remember that we are all wired to connect and we can continue to extend our empathy to one another despite our differences and to respond to one another with measured thoughtful responses, rather than knee-jerk reactions.