Originally posted on July 13, 2014 by Dr. Arigo
One of my recent projects was a small pilot study to test the feasibility of a new physical activity program. Although there are multiple components of my physical activity program, the novelty is its emphasis on social connections. As you can see from previous posts, understanding the effects of the social environment on health and health behavior change is central to my work; I believe that it’s central to overcoming ubiquitous barriers to healthy behaviors such as eating well and quitting smoking. We have decades of evidence to support the relationship between a person’s social environment and his or her health. For example, one of the most elegant and powerful studies on this relationship happened in the 1980s, when Sheldon Cohen and colleagues demonstrated that social support can protect a person from catching the common cold.
Advancements in statistical modeling techniques (as well as access to large data sets) led to findings on social network effects – in essence, we become more like close others in appearance (weight) and habits (smoking) over time. Although the math in the observational (i.e., no experimental manipulation, an thus no inference of causation) network studies has been questioned, FaceBook’s recent experimental manipulation of our News Feed content has delivered the same conclusion: we are affected by others, and we become more like “close” others over time. (For the record: ethical problems noted here, but important work and clever execution. I may return to this in another post.)
Neuroscientist Mattew Lieberman’s Social: Why Our Brains are Wired to Connect takes this concept several steps further. The goal of Lieberman’s work at UCLA is to determine the neural underpinnings of our social behaviors. In Social, he describes his (and other) research at length, integrates it with personal stories, and makes suggestions for how we might be able to use it to improve societal problems. The book is repetitive at times, but it hammers home a few critical points:
(1) The brain’s “default” network – what happens when we’re not actively focusing on anything in particular – is social. When we don’t have something to do, we default to thinking about our relationships and trying to figure out others’ motivations.
(2) The brain’s “mentalizing system” likely is responsible for our ability to connect with and understand others.
(3) We are hard-wired to prioritize our social connections – they likely kept us safe from predators and starvation as we evolved. Accordingly, we can improve failing institutions like the U.S. public education system by increasing the social connectivity of students around learning (rather than restricting their interactions in the classroom and allowing their social energies to be used elsewhere).
The third point is most interesting to me, as the same could be said for health promotion. But there are several ways to facilitate social connections – which is/are most effective remains an open and compelling question.
For me, reading this book not only underscored the importance of the work I do, but it encouraged me to return to blogging. Sharing my thoughts and my work with others is the only way to make them useful.