Hold on tight

Science shows that closeness with others doesn't just help us cope with pain -- it makes us live longer

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Hold on tight (Credit: Peter Bernik via Shutterstock)
This article was excerpted from the new book "Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior" from Pantheon.

I came home from work late one evening, hungry and frustrated, and popped into my mother’s house, which was next door to mine. She was eating a frozen dinner and sipping from a mug of hot water. CNN blared on the TV in the background. She asked how my day had been. I said, “Oh, it was good.” She looked up from her black plastic food tray and, after a moment, said, “No, it wasn’t. What happened? Have some pot roast.” My mother was eighty-eight, hard of hearing, and half blind in her right eye—which was her good eye. But when it came to perceiving her son’s emotions, my mother’s X-ray vision was unimpaired.

As she read my mood with such fluency, I thought about the man who had been my coworker and partner in frustration that day—the physicist Stephen Hawking, who could hardly move a muscle, thanks to a forty-five-year struggle with motor neuron disease. By this stage in the progression of his illness, he could communicate only by painstakingly twitching the cheek muscle under his right eye. That twitch was detected by a sensor on his glasses and communicated to a computer in his wheelchair. In this manner, with the help of some special software, he managed to select letters and words from a screen, and eventually to type out what he wanted to express. On his “good” days, it was as if he were playing a video game where the prize was the ability to communicate a thought. On his “bad” days, it was as if he were blinking in Morse code but had to look up the dot and dash sequence between each letter. On the bad days—and this had been one of them—our work was frustrating for both of us.

And yet, even when he could not form words to express his ideas about the wave function of the universe, I had little trouble detecting when his attention shifted from the cosmos to thoughts of calling it quits and moving on to a nice curry dinner. I always knew when he was content, tired, excited, or displeased, just from a glance at his eyes. His personal assistant had this same ability. When I asked her about it, she described a catalog of expressions she’d learned to recognize over the years. My favorite was “the steely-faced glint of glee” he displayed when composing a potent rejoinder to someone with whom he strongly disagreed. Language is handy, but we humans have social and emotional connections that transcend words, and are communicated—and understood—without conscious thought.

The experience of feeling connected to others seems to start very early in life. Studies on infants show that even six-month-olds make judgments about what they observe of social behavior. In one such study infants watched as a “climber,” which was nothing more than a disk of wood with large eyes glued onto its circular “face,” started at the bottom of a hill and repeatedly tried but failed to make its way to the top. After a while, a “helper,” a triangle with similar eyes glued on, would sometimes approach from farther downhill and help the climber with an upward push. On other attempts, a square “hinderer” would approach from uphill and shove the circular disk back down.

The experimenters wanted to know if the infants, unaffected and uninvolved bystanders, would cop an attitude toward the hinderer square. How does a six-month-old show its disapproval of a wooden face? The same way six-year-olds (or sixty-year-olds) express social displeasure: by refusing to play with it. That is, when the experimenters gave the infants a chance to reach out and touch the figures, the infants showed a definite reluctance to reach for the hinderer square, as compared to the helper triangle.

Moreover, when the experiment was repeated with either a helper and a neutral bystander block or a hinderer and a neutral block, the infants preferred the friendly triangle to the neutral block, and the neutral block to the nasty square. Squirrels don’t set up foundations to cure rabies, and snakes don’t help strange snakes cross the road, but humans place a high value on kindness. Scientists have even found that parts of our brain linked to reward processing are engaged when we participate in acts of mutual cooperation, so being nice can be its own reward. Long before we can verbalize attraction or revulsion, we are attracted to the kind and repelled by the unkind.

One advantage of belonging to a cohesive society in which people help one another is that the group is often better equipped than an unconnected set of individuals to deal with threats from the outside. People intuitively realize that there is strength in numbers and take comfort in the company of others, especially in times of anxiety or need. Or, as Patrick Henry famously said, “United we stand, divided we fall.” (Ironically, Henry collapsed and fell into the arms of bystanders shortly after uttering the phrase.)

Consider a study performed in the 1950s. About thirty female students at the University of Minnesota, none of whom had previously met, were ushered into a room and asked not to speak to each other. In the room was a “gentleman of serious mien, horn-rimmed glasses, dressed in a white laboratory coat, stethoscope dribbling out of his pocket, behind him an array of formidable electrical junk.” Seeking to induce anxiety, he melodramatically introduced himself as “Dr. Gregor Zilstein of the Medical School’s Departments of Neurology and Psychiatry.” Actually, he was Stanley Schachter, a harmless professor of social psychology. Schachter told the students he had asked them there to serve as subjects in an experiment on the effects of electric shocks. He would be shocking them, he said, and studying their reactions. After going on for seven or eight minutes about the importance of the research, he concluded by saying,

“These shocks will hurt, they will be painful. . . . It is necessary that our shocks be intense. . . . [We will] hook you into apparatus such as this [motioning toward the scary equipment behind him], give you a series of shocks, and take various measures such as your pulse rate, blood pressure, and so on.”

Schachter then told the students that he needed them to leave the room for about ten minutes while he brought in still more equipment and set it all up. He noted that there were many rooms available, so they could wait either in a room by themselves or in one with other subjects. Later, Schachter repeated the scenario with a different group of about thirty students. But this time, he aimed to lull them into a state of relaxation. And so, instead of the scary part about intense shocks, he said, “What we will ask each of you to do is very simple. We would like to give each of you a series of very mild electric shocks. I assure you that what you feel will not in any way be painful. It will resemble more a tickle or a tingle than anything unpleasant.”

He then gave these students the same choice about waiting alone or with others. In reality, that choice was the climax of the experiment; there would be no electric shocks for either group.

The point of the ruse was to see if, because of their anxiety, the group expecting a painful shock would be more likely to seek the company of others than the group not expecting one. The result: about 63 percent of the students who were made anxious about the shocks wanted to wait with others, while only 33 percent of those expecting tickly, tingly shocks expressed that preference. The students had instinctively created their own support groups. It’s a natural instinct. A quick look at a web directory of support groups in Los Angeles, for example, turned up groups focused on abusive behavior, acne, Adderall addiction, addiction, ADHD, adoption, agoraphobia, alcoholism, albinism, Alzheimer’s, Ambien users, amputees, anemia, anger management, anorexia, anxiety, arthritis, Asperger’s syndrome, asthma, Ativan addiction, and autism — and that’s just the A’s. Joining support groups is a reflection of the human need to associate with others, of our fundamental desire for support, approval, and friendship. We are, above all, a social species.

Social connection is such a basic feature of human experience that when we are deprived of it, we suffer. Many languages have expressions—such as “hurt feelings”—that compare the pain of social rejection to the pain of physical injury. Those may be more than just metaphors. Brain-imaging studies show that there are two components to physical pain: an unpleasant emotional feeling and a feeling of sensory distress. Those two components of pain are associated with different structures in the brain. Scientists have discovered that social pain is also associated with a brain structure called the anterior cingulate cortex—the same structure involved in the emotional component of physical pain.

It’s fascinating that the pain of a stubbed toe and the sting of a snubbed advance share a space in your brain. The fact that they are roommates gave some scientists a seemingly wild idea: Could painkillers that reduce the brain’s response to physical brain also subdue social pain? To find out, researchers recruited twenty-five healthy subjects to take two tablets twice each day for three weeks. Half received extra-strength Tylenol (acetaminophen) tablets, the other half placebos. On the last day, the researchers invited the subjects, one by one, into the lab to play a computer-based virtual ball-tossing game. Each person was told they were playing with two other subjects located in another room, but in reality those roles were played by the computer, which interacted with the subjects in a carefully designed manner. In round 1, those reputedly human teammates played nicely with the subjects, but in round 2, after tossing the virtual ball to the subject a few times, the teammates started playing only with each other, rudely excluding the subject from the game, like soccer players who refuse to pass the ball to a peer. After the exercise, the subjects were asked to fill out a questionnaire designed to measure social distress. Compared to those who took the placebo, those who took the Tylenol reported a reduced level of hurt feelings.

There was also a twist. These researchers had the subjects play the virtual ball game while lying in an fMRI machine. So while they were being snubbed by their teammates, their brains were being scanned by the machine. It showed that the subjects who’d taken Tylenol had reduced activity in the brain areas associated with social exclusion. Tylenol, it seems, really does reduce the neural response to social rejection.

When the Bee Gees long ago sang “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart?” they probably didn’t foresee that the answer was to take two Tylenols. That Tylenol would help really does sound far-fetched, so the brain researchers also performed a clinical test to see if Tylenol had the same effect outside the lab, in the real world of social rejection. They asked five dozen volunteers to fill out a “hurt feelings” survey, a standard psychological tool, every day for three weeks. Again, half the volunteers took a dose of Tylenol twice a day, while the other half took a placebo. The result? The volunteers on Tylenol did indeed report significantly reduced social pain over that time period.

The connection between social pain and physical pain illustrates the links between our emotions and the physiological processes of the body. Social rejection doesn’t just cause emotional pain; it affects our physical being. In fact, social relationships are so important to humans that a lack of social connection constitutes a major risk factor for health, rivaling even the effects of cigarette smoking, high blood pressure, obesity, and lack of physical activity. In one study, researchers surveyed 4,775 adults in Alameda County, near San Francisco. The subjects completed a questionnaire asking about social ties such as marriage, contacts with extended family and friends, and group affiliation. Each individual’s answers were translated into a number on a “social network index,” with a high number meaning the person had many regular and close social contacts and a low number representing relative social isolation. The researchers then tracked the health of their subjects over the next nine years. Since the subjects had varying backgrounds, the scientists employed mathematical techniques to isolate the effects of social connectivity from risk factors such as smoking and the others I mentioned above, and also from factors like socioeconomic status and reported levels of life satisfaction. They found a striking result. Over the nine-year period, those who’d placed low on the index were twice as likely to die as individuals who were similar with regard to other factors but had placed high on the social network index. Apparently, hermits are bad bets for life insurance underwriters.

Excerpted from “Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior.” by Leonard Mlodinow. Copyright © 2012 by Leonard Mlodinow. Excerpted by permission of Pantheon, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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