Why connecting is good for our brains but social distance is not …

Today, the government is serious, a fine of $300 will be imposed on anyone who defies safe distancing rules. I discover, during this period, that I’m a sociable Introvert. Telecommuting is not the heaven I imagine it to be.

In Singapore, we even have a dish that requires us to engage socially, the lo-hei, a raw dish salad dish that we toss and wish each other blessings. Networking is the oil which culture is passed. Covid-19 is spread across this networking.

I am digging up a book by Michael Lieberman, Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect. Social anthropologists such as Dunbar have long hypothesized that a species’ brain size or its neocortex is a function of its social group. Most animals have brains in proportion to their body size – species with larger bodies often have larger brains. But humans have bigger brains, six times larger than that expected for our body size.

This has puzzled researchers, as the brain is draining resource – burning 20% of the body’s energy while accounting for only 4% of its mass.

As evolution tends to eliminate waste, how did humans evolve large, energy-consuming brains?

A dominant hypothesis suggests that challenging social interactions were the driving force. Ecological problems only lead to human-sized brains when individuals can keep learning hard skills as they grow. When individuals learn from allies their culturally accumulated knowledge, such as making fire. Mauricio González-Forero and those of others suggest that a hard ecology and the accumulation/ transmission of cultural knowledge socially could act in concert to produce a human sized brain.

Why do we need to connect? Whether you believe in evolution or are a creationist, research seems to point that human survival is wired for it.

There is a price tag on relationships. Studies on the brain’s reward center, which turns on when people feel pleasure, found that the brain’s reward centre was indeed more active when people gave $10 to charity than when they received $10.  Emily Esfahani Smith

But the law of nature demands that sometimes, we have to be alone. A caterpillar enters a cocoon stage before it transforms into a butterfly. To transform from the ordinary world to the world of adventure, a hero needs to cross the threshold of tension between safety and growth. There is an illusion of safety when we hold on the familiar. Or now, during covid-19 when being safe means to keep a social distance.

The path of transformation starts with recognising that the pull of the familiar which is no longer relevant.

  1. Know thyself. To embark on a hero’s journey of personal transformation, start with self knowledge. There are several tools you can try: Strengths based VIA, or Jung influenced 16 personalities. As Socrates puts it, “The unexamined life is not worth living”.
  2. Future Self. While most strengths based instruments look at your top 5 strengths, another use of the VIA, is to examine the bottom 5 strengths that are underutilised or ignored. In my case, it is “creativity”, “zest” and “leadership”. This period of isolation gives me the space to map out where I want to be one year from now and the road map to get there.
  3. Goal-setting. World renowned educator and business coach, Marshall Goldsmith, Career Coach suggests in “What got you here, won’t get you there”, that we ask 6 questions with our team, “Where are you going”, “Where are we going”, “What are some suggestions for improvement”, “How can I help”, “What are some suggestions for me to be a better manager”. Some goals to work on, could be to ask yourself daily questions. “Did I do my best today” to: be happy, have positive relationships, meaning work towards my goals. Take up courses at Linkedin Learning or learn UX at GA.
  4. Build Accountability. “In leading through relationships”, Leadership Imagineer,Simon Bailey suggests that you can either get a coach or an accountability partner to go on the journey with you on developing yourself. Meet via Skype or any technology platform.
  5. Virtual Watercooler. One of the things we miss about going to work is bumping into colleagues at the pantry, or popping into your boss office for a quick check-in. Or catch up on office gossip during lunch, or on the way to the washroom. All that is gone with WFH. Teams at General Assembly have moved their happy hours online, as that is part of social grooming which is a necessary part of working life and building company culture. Others have created online exercise time together.
  6. Transition. Before WFH, the commute time from work to home allows the brain to decompress and signal that we are entering a different space. With WFH, that demarcation is gone and the overspill can create some form of anxiety or stress. Go for a walk- with your mask on, or play some music. Visualise the evening or start a gratitude journal on how you’ve survived another day.

In the meantime, stay safe. Only two more weeks to go.

Photo credit: NL, Taxi drivers having a conversation while waiting for customers, Okinawa 2018

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: