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Humans are born into social groups and live their entire lives as a part of society, so the social element can’t easily be removed from the evolution of an individual. But how does social contact affect our health?
We are social beings, and interacting with people is in our nature. But it also brings us benefits on a mental and physical level.
As human beings, we dream, learn, grow, and work as part of society. The society that we’re born into and the societies that we navigate throughout our lives shape our personal identities.
And in fact, so keen are we to communicate with each other — even beyond geographical limitations — that we’ve developed a plethora of tools to help us achieve that, including pen and paper, telegraph, telephone, and the Internet.
When I asked my colleagues in the Medical News Today office what benefits — if any — they thought that they derived from social connection, most of them said that they found some measure of comfort in social interaction.
Some colleagues said that they enjoyed the shared experiences, whereas others explained that friends kept them motivated to do “some healthful activities from time to time.” Others said that being around friends helped them to “destress and put things into perspective.”
Even the most introverted among us crave social contact from time to time. But why is that, and does being social bring us any actual health benefits?
In this Spotlight, we investigate why humans thrive in society, and how social interaction impacts our mental and physical well-being.
Why are we a social species?
It may be intuitive to say that being social has helped our species to not only survive but also thrive over millions of years. But why is that so?
A study from 2011, which was published in the journal Nature, argues that being social became a key strength for the primate ancestors of humans when they switched from foraging for food by night (so that they could use darkness as a shield) to carrying out their activities by day (which rendered them more vulnerable to a wider range of predators).
Another more recent study — also in the journal Nature — suggests that early hominids may have evolved a basic form of language because they needed more advanced communication to share ideas. This, they say, helped our ancestors to develop tools that allowed them to live better and evolve further.
Researchers have also suggested that humans are innately compassionate beings, and that our compassion and empathy have served us well — since the capacity to care and share is highly valued by individuals looking for a mate.
After all, in order for a species to survive, its members have to not only procreate, but also be able to shield their offspring from harm and shield peers from injury, so that they can derive strength from collaboration in the face of adversity.
‘Face-to-face contact is like a vaccine’
Psychologist Susan Pinker states that direct person-to-person contact triggers parts of our nervous system that release a “cocktail” of neurotransmitters tasked with regulating our response to stress and anxiety.
In other words, when we communicate with people face-to-face, it could help to make us more resilient to stress factors in the long run.
“Face-to-face contact releases a whole cascade of neurotransmitters and, like a vaccine, they protect you now, in the present, and well into the future, so simply […] shaking hands, giving somebody a high-five is enough to release oxytocin, which increases your level of trust, and it lowers your cortisol levels, so it lowers your stress.”
She adds that, as a result of social interaction, “dopamine is [also] generated, which gives us a little high and it kills pain, it’s like a naturally produced morphine.”
This idea is corroborated by the findings of a study covered by MNT last year, which concluded that the touch of a romantic partner can actually help to relieve physical pain.
Another study from last year showed that those undergoing chemotherapy for cancer tend to fare better if they have access to social support and interaction, suggesting that just by being around family, friends, or peers going through similar experiences can strengthen us both mentally and physically.
Social motivation and brain power
Research has shown that by interacting with others, we actually train our brains. Social motivation and social contact can help to improve memory formation and recall and protects the brain from neurodegenerative diseases.
When we learn with the purpose of sharing our knowledge with others, we learn better.
Prof. Matthew Lieberman — from the University of California, Los Angeles — specializes in the mechanics of what he calls our “social brain,” which is the neural activity related to social interaction, and the brain benefits that are afforded by it.
He has seen, for instance, that “if you learn in order to teach someone else, then you learn better than if you learn in order to take a test.”
This goes against the prominent beliefs in modern educational systems, in which learning on one’s own, for the sake of accumulating knowledge and skills, is typically preferred.
Instead, however, Prof. Lieberman notes that “when you’re socially motivated to learn, the social brain can do the learning and it can do it better than the analytical network that you typically activate when you try to memorize.”
A study published last year also found that maintaining close friendships later in life could help to prevent mental decline.
The research — led by scientists at the Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer’s Disease Center at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago, IL — found that “SuperAgers,” defined as people aged 80 and above but who have the mental agility of much younger people, appear to have one thing in common: close friends.
“While both SuperAgers and [their peers with average cognitive performance] endorsed high levels of psychological well-being,” explain the authors, “SuperAgers endorsed greater levels of positive social relationships than their cognitively average-for-age peers.”