What relational field is forming your brain?
“The present moment is filled with joy and happiness. If you are attentive, you will see it. ”
― Thich Nhat Hanh
I was 19 and on the train to Coffs Harbour, Kathy was on her way back to Grafton. She was 75, and studying Geography at Uni, she was so cool, so alive. We agreed that I would visit her in Grafton. We had a wonderful day together, I felt enriched through having met her. At the end of the day we sat next to each other on the narrow bench at the station, waiting for my train back to Coffs Habour. This is when she shared that her daughter had just told her that her father (Kathy’s husband) had been sexually abusing her from the age of eight to when she was thirteen. Kathy said she hated him, despised him, and she didn’t know what to do, how to heal the relationship and pain for her daughter, how to move on. I listened, had never heard of sexual abuse before, her words still now edged in my mind. I believe it gave her a little relief to share her story, her confusion with a relative stranger.
Would I meet Kathy today if I went on the train? Would we have had the chance to share the day and her tell her story? I think it is less likely, as we probably both would have been on our phones, IPads or laptops and so the opportunity to speak would not have arisen.
I wonder how many spontaneous interactions no longer take place, how many new friendships are not created simply because we don’t look up, we don’t have, or get the opportunity, to interact face to face. We go to meetings while on our mobiles and we don’t put them down till the meeting starts. How many small potential interactions do we miss out on daily? Interactions that could make us feel connected, seen, and at times provide an opportunity for further contact.
Mobiles, and social media are potentially wonderful additions to our life. The problem is when we are addicted, the addiction impacts our relationships, our anxiety, our life quality. We are all easily moved by the quick fix! Replacing Facebook for ‘face to face’ relationships is like eating candyfloss for hunger; it provides a fleeting sense of fullness immediately followed by dissatisfaction.
It is understandable that we get hooked and that we don’t consider the implications of our dependence on ‘mobile devices’. Also as mobile use has increased relatively gradually, it is a bit like the story of the boiling frog.
The hormone Dopamine has a key role in all addictive and repetitive behaviour. It is released when we feel good or if we think that a feel good opportunity is nearby. It motivates us to seek what we want and know what we want. This means that Dopamine can be seen as regulating emotion and motivation. It has also been found to have a role in addiction, as those with poorer dopamine receptors tend to crave more and need more of a good thing to feel satisfied. Both Dopamine and the stress hormones Cortisol and Adrenalin can be seen as basic ‘me focused survival hormones’. They get us away from a threat or move us toward what we think is going to feel good.
The more tension, the more self,
the more self, the more suffering.
On the other hand when you connect with another human, a little oxytocin is released; it is the trust and feel good hormone released when you experience that connected feeling. Oxytocin also soothes your threat reactivity, it soothes your stress and your painful sense of separateness that comes with stress. In this way Oxytocin mutes the sense of self and shifts your attention to the shared human space.
It is clear that there are serious concerns and costs to our new habits; one being not meeting ‘a Kathy’ and sharing a story in support and empathy. Another is the increased levels of Cortisol that much of the social media generate. This is generated through a negative bias, comparing our inner life to the glory moments of others, as well as always feeling that we are never quite up to date with our emails.
Apart from our loss of face-to-face connection, another concern is the shaping of our brain. Dan Siegel reminds us that the mind is not inside the brain, rather it is embodied and relational, able to monitor and modify energy and information flow. This naturally means that it is relational and it forms in relation to how we experience the world and our relationships. He even goes as far as to say that we are less a ‘me’ as we are a ‘mwe’.
Interestingly, but not surprisingly, a Harvard study of Adult Development that tracked the lives of 721 men over a 75 year period concluded that good relationships keep us healthy and happier, whereas loneliness kills (let’s assume it is the same for women). Those more socially connected live longer and are happier and physically healthier. It is not about the number of friends or ‘likes’, but about quality of relationships that matters. It is whether we feel safe, connected and trust that the other person would have our back in case we need it. The study found that those most satisfied with their relationships at age 50, were the healthiest in their 80s, and this includes brain health. See more here.
“True happiness, we are told, consists in getting out of one’s self; but the point is not only to get out – you must stay out; and to stay out you must have some absorbing errand.”
― Henry James
So healthy relationships are good for us and are essential for our healthy development. What then happens when our relationships are more and more based on us looking at a ‘screen’? What happens to the forming of our brain? What happens to our anxiety levels when we are less and less soothed by feeling personally connected through Oxytocin?
Let’s explore our relationship with our mobiles, laptops and IPads, let’s notice the cost of not being present and the cost to relationships. Choose to leave the phone at home when meeting a friend. Let’s be mindful around what needs are met when checking Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. Let’s notice how we feel before checking in and after.
Let Facebook et al be our mindfulness practice! Would love to hear what you find?