We're Better Together

December 4, 2011
Cheryl Woelk |

I wrote this post about community long before I heard the research. But now it's neurologically true - community makes things easier.

During the attachment conference at Eastern Mennonite University earlier this year, James Coan, an "affective neuroscientist" at the University of Virginia, presented his research in the regulation of emotions, such as fear and threat, in relation to social contact.

His study compared the brain's heightened levels of threat responses between participants who were threatened when they were alone, while holding a stranger's hand, and while holding the hand of a spouse. Brains of those holding the hands of spouse showed significantly stronger regulation of threat response. That is, holding hands with a spouse made participants calmer in a difficult situation.

While this finding wasn't much of a surprise, the next results made me take notice. Holding even a stranger's hand was better than being alone.

Coan went on to explain other research he had done with friends, strangers, and couples and threat responses to perceived danger to self and others. After administering a questionnaire that measured the happiness of couples, he found that those who rated highest on happiness had the greatest effect on reducing the neural activity associated with threat responses.

At the end, Coan concluded, "Social proximity and contact decreases the burden associated with challenging environments. We achieve this by extending and distributing our sense of self across our social networks, taking on as our own the states of those closest to us."

An article in the New York Times entitled, "Is Marriage Good for your Health?" reports more of Coan's research, explaining how people in healthy relationship "outsource" some of the brain's work required to handle threat responses. Coan is quoted as saying, “When someone holds your hand in a study or just shows that they are there for you by giving you a back rub, when you’re in their presence, that becomes a cue that you don’t have to regulate your negative emotion… The other person is essentially regulating your negative emotion but without your prefrontal cortex. It’s much less wear and tear on us if we have someone there to help regulate us.”

Human society knows that "two are better than one," but somehow it's nice to know that the latest neuroscience can also confirm it. We connect our brain activity to each other, and the effect is something more than what we can do separately. Whether one attributes this to the intricate workings of evolution, or the glorious creation of God and the presence of the Holy Spirit, to be human means to be in community.

Author Name: 
Cheryl Woelk
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I remember the saying "No man is an island". We cannot live alone, we need someone to be with us. This is indeed true that we are better together. We can make big things when we are together.

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