Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Your smartphone, your social brain, and your vagus nerve.

I am always struck, when I go a local Starbucks for my noon coffee or do a happy hour at a local bar, that the great majority of those present are staring intently at their smartphones or tablets, while sitting in an environment meant to encourage interaction. As we spend less and less time engaging in face to face positive social contact in public places, what are we losing? The increasing aversion to human contact exhibited by people addicted to staring at their small screens suggests that our social brain follows the same rule as the rest of our brain and body: "Use it or loose it." I've done a post pointing to how modern hi-tech dialog devices fail to engage the evolved brain and body synchronization that accompanies face-to-face dialog.

In a recent NYTimes piece, Barabara Fredricksen describes some of her recent work on countering the toxic effects of isolation from direction person-to-person contact. Some clips, to which I have added a few reference links:
My research team and I conducted a longitudinal field experiment on the effects of learning skills for cultivating warmer interpersonal connections in daily life. Half the participants, chosen at random, attended a six-week workshop on an ancient mind-training practice known as metta, or “lovingkindness,” that teaches participants to develop more warmth and tenderness toward themselves and others....We discovered that the meditators not only felt more upbeat and socially connected; but they also altered a key part of their cardiovascular system called vagal tone. Scientists used to think vagal tone was largely stable, like your height in adulthood. Our data show that this part of you is plastic, too, and altered by your social habits.
To appreciate why this matters, here’s a quick anatomy lesson. Your brain is tied to your heart by your vagus nerve. Subtle variations in your heart rate reveal the strength of this brain-heart connection, and as such, heart-rate variability provides an index of your vagal tone. By and large, the higher your vagal tone the better. It means your body is better able to regulate the internal systems that keep you healthy, like your cardiovascular, glucose and immune responses.
Beyond these health effects, the behavioral neuroscientist Stephen Porges has shown that vagal tone is central to things like facial expressivity and the ability to tune in to the frequency of the human voice. By increasing people’s vagal tone, we increase their capacity for connection, friendship and empathy.
In short, the more attuned to others you become, the healthier you become, and vice versa. This mutual influence also explains how a lack of positive social contact diminishes people. Your heart’s capacity for friendship also obeys the biological law of “use it or lose it.” If you don’t regularly exercise your ability to connect face to face, you’ll eventually find yourself lacking some of the basic biological capacity to do so.

1 comment:

  1. It is really important that people socialize. Talking using your phone or by sending messages is not enough. I think emotional connection is vital and learning how to respond to other people properly. Gestures, facial movement and tone can be learned by doing personal communication.