Saturday, October 30, 2010

Mark Fairfield - It All Depends: A Position in Support of Social Engagement

In response to a post the other day on how we are wired to be social, Mark Fairfield sent me a link to his article at Let's Relate: The Relational Center Blog on the importance of social engagement. It's an elaboration on the idea that we are hard-wired to be social - and that not working with that reality is bad for our physical and mental health. [This is a cool site, but the way - check it out. It was new to me, so I'm grateful to Mark for the reference.]

This is a great article - it's long, but it's totally worth the read. Besides, he quotes Ken Gergen, and that always get's my approval. But seriously, check it out.

It All Depends: A Position in Support of Social Engagement

Isolation is corrosive. This intuition nags at us as we slather on sunscreen and reach for a cold drink; reclining in our lounge chairs and adjusting the ear buds that pipe in our epic playlists, we watch the SUVs parade by, averting our eyes from the strange but eerily familiar neighbors we pray won’t acknowledge or even notice us. We feel a vague longing to be seen, to know more about what goes on out there—where our eyes can see but our feet will never take us. But then the nervous recoil: we are busy, exhausted, brittle. What if we’re not met with warmth? What if there is too much warmth? What if we get trapped? What if we get dropped?

All wise questions, grounded in our lived experience of needing others but encountering indifference or, worse, reproach. In the background we hear the faint echo of a warning that harks back to the Pleistocene age, when being left behind meant sure death for our foraging ancestors. Death from rejection is not as sure today in our corner of the world, at least not for most Americans, not in any immediate way. But we are recognizing more and more the physical and emotional effects of feeling left behind—sometimes quite serious effects, which reveal the powerful relationships between social ties and health that linger from our foraging past. We suffer when we avoid each other, even when we do it as a protection.

Social Engagement Keeps Us Healthy
Evidence from many domains of research suggests that we are evolved to be healthiest and happiest when we are striving together—actually in close contact—and depending on each other to meet our needs. Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam’s bestselling analysis of growing isolation in American life, Bowling Alone (2000), offers sobering statistics correlating social capital with a variety of conditions widely associated with health and wellbeing, including increased immune function, longer life expectancy, more economic stability and safer neighborhoods. Putnam’s research confirms that people who are embedded in highly participatory communities—an array of civic associations, voluntary organizations, and informal networks of mutual care—enjoy healthier, happier lives.

Social capital derives its value from the trust we come to place on those in our networks cooperating with us to create sustainable benefit. In her account of the evolution of breeding and childrearing practices, the celebrated anthropologist Sarah Blather Hrdy (2009) underscores the important role that cooperation played historically in ensuring the sustainability of the human species. Hrdy traces the origins of human cooperation to new skills for mutual understanding and emotional resonance that evolved during an age when various recurring dilemmas, such as sporadic food supplies and unpredictable climate changes, demanded explicit practices that would distribute responsibility for ensuring the survival of offspring to weaning and self-feeding. The Pleistocene human child had no hope of surviving if its mother could not rely on her community to collaborate in caring for it. The demand to cooperate called forth the development of mind-reading skills, sophisticated capabilities for reading and evaluating others’ intentions. Even now, this human ability continues to sustain us by facilitating the process in which caregivers and infants engage to form the secure attachments that foster our prosocial sensibilities.

In the field of psychology, John Bowlby’s notion of attachment (1969) gets at the important role this kind of mutual understanding plays in ensuring mother and infant can work adequately well together, creating a context of care that exerts a shaping influence on the infant’s character well into adulthood. Bowlby’s theory, which has become a cornerstone in human development models, was most notably supplemented by Mary Ainsworth in the 1970s (Ainsworth et al., 1979) and by Main and Solomon a decade later (1986). Neuroscience weighed in on the topic in the mid-1990s positing mirror neurons as one physical medium by which attachment dynamics most likely take place (e.g., Gallese et al., 1996; but see also Gallese et al., 2001 and Fogassi et al., 2005 for more recent applications to empathy studies). Psychiatrist Daniel J. Siegel’s work synthesizes all these important contributions into a framework for understanding the influence the caregiving surround exerts on the human brain in early childhood in ways that influence us profoundly throughout our adult lives (Siegel, 1999 and 2009).

Yet much of this research assumes the mother/child dyad to hold sway as the singular point of entry through which this health and growth promoting attunement flows. Taking issue with this assumption, Sarah Hrdy widens the usual mother/child dyad focus of attachment theory and interpersonal neurobiology to take into account the important role that alloparents (literally, others nearby who parent) have played historically in providing a community of care for children. The village community not only complemented but actually enabled adequate mothering.

Read the whole article.


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