Healing Humans Requires the Communal Touch

3 min read
Photo by Anna Shvets via Pexels

Photo by Anna Shvets via Pexels

I posted earlier this year about how a recent study showed that a single conversation a day with another human being can boost happiness and reduce stress levels. We humans are not meant to be alone. We evolved in small groups for self-defense and safety, because we needed protection against the apex predators that roamed the world we lived in then. We humans like to hang out together.

Now I’ve learned from another, older study that inflammation – a precursor to diseases like the flu and lots of other maladies – can cause us to reach out to our fellow human beings in order to find support. On social media, no less! As someone who promotes face-to-face interactions above virtual ones, this study is a good reminder that the digital can substitute effectively in some limited ways for in-person connections.

Given that these increases in inflammation are probably not something we’re consciously aware of, the study suggests an unconscious need to connect with fellow humans when we are ill.

I was brought up in New England, in the “children should be seen and not heard” era and my parents believed that too much coddling when a child was sick would lead inevitably to malingering. So, I learned to recover on my own. On one memorable occasion, I had a mysterious fever that was spiking, and my parents decided that the way to cure it was to wrap me up in swaddling to increase my body temperature in order to break the fever. They closed the door on me with instructions to come out when that happened, not before. I don’t know what temperature my overheated body reached, given that I was hallucinating about flying, and floating above my body looking down at it, but the fever did eventually break. I also lost 20 pounds in a week before I could start eating again. This research suggests that a better approach might have been to have my friends tiptoe into the sick room and murmur encouraging get-well sentiments.

Another study shows that having someone listen to you natter about your problems (this time in person) helps your brain stay, on average, four years younger from middle age onward.

The common idea in each of these studies is that we are not meant to be alone; we do better when we have other people in our lives. We do better mentally, physically, and emotionally. The pandemic taught us that people suffer in isolation. Of course, there are introverts who thrive on solitude, but for most of us, at least the occasional company of our families, friends, neighbors, peers, or fellow humans is essential for our well-being.

We are a communal species, like ants, bees, and flocks of starlings. Digital means of connection should (and do) exist as extensions and enrichments of our basic human bonding, but they should never be thought of as substitutes, or strong enough on their own to replace face-to-face sensory input. We need to see, hear, smell, taste, and touch our fellow humans. Deprived of this data, we make up negative information about other people. The result is, well, the Internet, with its hugely negative bias and bad behavior.

We should never think of virtual communications as adequate substitutes for in-person connection, but rather as a stop-gap, or temporary replacement, or modest enhancement of existing real face-to-face interaction. We evolved long ago to do that rather well, and it will be a long time in the future before we’ve evolved to handle digital communications with anything like the same verve.

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