You’ve probably heard that if you want to truly master a skill, you need to spend 10,000 hours on it.
According to Matt Leiberman, author of Social, Why our Brains are Wired to Connect, you had already spent that 10,000 hours understanding people and how we relate to them by the time you were TEN years old. Just a few years ago, the technology was developed to gather MRI data on more than two people at a time in a social context (as opposed to being shoved into an MRI tube together). What researchers found not only confirmed the belief that our brains are primarily social, it exceeded what was previously held to be true. Our brains are so dependent on other people that if a newborn baby were completely isolated from any human contact, it wouldn’t survive more than a few months. In other words: Your brain is made to connect with the brains of other people.
Our brains are so tuned into our relatedness with others that it scans our environment five times every second, rewarding us with either a sense of well-being or warning us with some stress signals if our relatedness is being threatened in any way. Our brains actually experience social pain in the same way as it experiences physical pain. This is probably why we describe a break-up or the loss of someone as a “hurt”.
So think about this a minute: if your brain is that wired up for people, doesn’t it make sense that managing your relatedness would be an important part of managing your overall life balance and brain health?
This last week was both challenging and enlightening for me. I have a very close group of girlfriends and this week brought two unexpected deaths and a major health crisis for family members of my little tribe. The days were filled up with text message updates, making meals and sharing tears. There was shock, sadness, and fear. I noticed something, though: at the same time, my sense of well-being was strangely deepened. Here’s what I realized – the experience of being deeply loved and connected to others is stronger than sadness. Another way of putting it is that because my brain was getting its need for relatedness met so strongly, the other stresses and threats had less impact.
The funny thing about our brains is that they don’t always care how they get what they need. Those deep relationships with friends and family are the foundation of our overall social connections, but our brains connect with others all day, every day. The person that checks out your groceries, the guy you rode the elevator with this morning, the people in your office… your brain registers a positive or negative from every encounter.
Where is your opportunity to keep your connection with others more positive next year? Will you smile and greet more strangers as you go through your day? Will you spend more time or energy being present to others? Would you like to spend more time with friends? What will you need to change in order to make it happen?