Wednesday, October 11, 2006

The Need for Friends Is Hardwired in Our Brains

Daniel Goleman's NY Times article yesterday summarized why many neuroscientists believe that the need for human social interaction is so important to us, physically and mentally. We already know that folks with strong social networks of friends and family get well faster after injury or disease and live longer. But why?

Mirror neurons may be a big part of the answer. Our brains are hardwired to "mirror" what other people do or to rapidly synchronize with the feelings of others. This explains empathy and rapport, for example. Or as two researchers, Lisa M. Diamond and Lisa Aspinwall from the University of Utah, put it (in Daniel Goleman's much more accessible words): "emotional closeness allows the biology of one person to influence the other." And John T. Cacioppo from the University of Chicago, says that "the emotional status of our main relationships has a significant impact on our overall pattern of cardiovascular and neuroendocrine activity." We know, for example, that a supportive remark or touch from a friend can actually lower our blood pressure, reduce stress, and certainly make us feel better.

There we go, again: the amazing connection between heart and head. We are in for some exciting research and findings ahead.

On another but related topic, I've just found a new blog (for me), Developing Intelligence. Chris Chatham's last few postings have been on language acquisition and the intersection between language, culture, perception, and meaning. Mirror neurons should definitely be a topic in this discussion.

Language is a crazy salad of categorizing sounds and meaning and perceptions, organizing our thoughts (more categories, which result in, for example, grammar and syntax), and then comprehending others and expressing ourselves. I think it will become clear through more research in areas like "mirror neurons" that language and thinking are closely connected to our need for and response to social interactions. That's where we get the idea about language in the first place. And that's why language is so intertwined with culture, perception, and meaning, occurring through social interactions. Incredibly complex and alarmingly simple, at the same time. Like all really workable systems.

The message: one important part of brain fitness has got to be strong social interactions with friends and family. Our biology is just waiting to be influenced by others and those mirror neurons need to be exercised just like everything else.

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