Like humans, monkeys have a very advanced social life and structure. In order for primate communities to function at an optimal level, they need to be limited to between 20 and 50 members. At this size, each member knows the others quite well, personal bonds are strong and the social order flows easily. If the community exceeds 50 members, the social order starts to break down. To avoid chaos, the group naturally splits into two, with new relationships established and the order preserved.
Because humans share over 90% of their DNA with primates, it’s no surprise that we function in very much the same way. Anthropologist Robin Dunbar of University College of London discovered that the ability to maintain stable relationships is limited by the size of the brain’s neocortex (the large outer layer of the brain). Unlike other animals, humans and primates’ neocortexes have deep grooves in them, giving us a much greater surface area for billions of additional neurons. It’s here that we have the capacity to build relationships. Based on the size of our neocortex, sociological data shows that humans function best in groups of 150 or less. In other words, it’s not possible for us to have more than 150 relevant connections with any semblance of depth, at any one time. Beyond that, relationships and order start to fall apart.
This revelation isn’t new. The military has known about this biological necessity for many years, which is why military strategists keep fighting units limited to approximately 150 soldiers. In larger numbers, the groups suffer when hierarchies and sub-factions form within the group. At 150, formalities are unnecessary and mutual loyalty occurs naturally.
Humans are social creatures, and we thrive in each other’s company. However, in the last 60 years or so, especially in Western culture, we’ve emphasized radical individualism over social bonding. We’ve attached our self-worth to things like income, career, accomplishments and consumerism. As we’ve rushed to prove our worthiness by chasing after these things, we’ve let social and familial relationships dissolve in the wake of our individualistic pursuits.
As individualism rages on and humans continue to gather together in cities of immense proportion, it’s technology and social networks that are supposed to restore the primal connections we’ve lost. We’re told that we can have the best of both worlds - we can still make our lives all about us while occasionally “checking in” with family and virtual friends, and still feel nurtured. What it’s gotten us is even more loneliness as we continue to substitute real connection with convenience. Technology, specifically social networking, has completely skewed our primal sense of what real human connection is. We’re collecting virtual “friends” online, giving no thought to what that word really means or what these people actually contribute to our lives.
We’re confusing friendships with acquaintances. We share a casual experience with acquaintances, at work or in high school. With friends, we share a history. Acquaintances are people we know of. Friends are people we know. There’s a big difference. I like to say a real friend is someone who’ll show up at 3:00 am when your car breaks down on the highway. How many people do you know who could pass that test? That’s how many real friends you have.
The more virtual friends we have, the lonelier we get. That’s because we’ve traded real conversation for convenience. Just because we can conveniently text someone a few lines or send them an instant message doesn’t mean we’ve actually had a conversation. We’re not making a real, human connection. A conversation happens in real time. We don’t have the opportunity to self-edit because it’s spontaneous and in-the-moment. It’s energized and alive with genuine behavior, actions and reactions. It can be exciting, scary, funny and nurturing all at the same time.
An online interaction is planned. We can parse our words, edit and choose just the right photos to present ourselves as how we’d like others to see us, not necessarily as we are. Online communication is like Photoshopping your entire personality. How many of us have online personas that don’t match who or where we are in life? Is it because it’s easier to pretend we’re the online versions of ourselves rather than make the actual changes to experience that transformation?
We need real, physical relationships to point out the limitations we carry that hold us back. If we stay locked away in our online ivory towers, we never heal and move forward. Instead, we prefer to “update” people by keeping them at arm’s length through technology, in lieu of having an in-person interaction, to avoid our own pain.
If we intend to have lives that are full and rich, it’s time to unplug from technology and plug back into each other. Life is a somatic experience. That’s why we have a physical body. When we have a real conversation with a real human being, we can see his smile, hear his voice, touch his hand and respond to his body language. Our body needs this kind of energetic stimulation to remain healthy. Countless research studies show that people who are in loving partnerships and have deep friendships live longer. In fact, when two people touch each other, the brain energy from the person doing the touching - his electroencephalogram (EEG) - actually reflects in the recipient’s heart energy, or electrocardiogram (ECG). This same energy also feeds our souls with what I like to call spiritual nutrition.
Between humans, there is a real and scientifically measurable energy exchange when we are in each other’s company. Between humans and technology, there is none because the interaction is a passive one. The mystic poet, Rumi, understood this distinction hundreds of years before computers existed. He described passion as when a man could distinguish between the wine and its container. A truly passionate life is one where we tangibly experience its taste and texture, not just get an idea of it.
I tell my patients that although our relationships can cause us the most pain in life, they are also the source of our greatest reward. Personal, intimate relationships temper and test us, but they also make us stronger. They ground us energetically in a world that’s made of nothing but energy. It’s the tension put on our bones by the down-pull of gravity that helps us build stronger bones. That’s why astronauts who spend long periods of time in space often suffer osteoporosis. Social network relationships lack gravity. They aren’t grounded in any real biological force offering an energetic give-and-take that fuels our psycho-spiritual growth. Instead, we opt for a cheap substitute and end with a kind of psycho-spiritual osteoporosis. That’s why it’s called “virtual reality”, meaning almost but not exactly reality.
In real life, almost carries no weight. Did you almost fall in love with your spouse, almost birth your children, or almost take a dream vacation? No. What we will take with us from this earth when we pass on are nothing but our experiences. That’s life! Real relationships shape and evolve us because of the grounding energy that’s intrinsic to them. All our relationships, the good and bad, make us stronger and more resilient because of this. It’s our relationships that heal us.
It requires courage and work; it means putting ourselves back out there and taking a real risk again. Risk and reward are directly proportional; the bigger the risk we take, the bigger the reward. Being grounded from within helps us take risks, heal and move forward. As our hearts heal, our cells respond and we experience better physical health, too! As such, it’s only through establishing relationships with depth, trust and loyalty that we live richer and healthier lives. We can only accomplish that by going out into the real world and finding it…and that’s not virtual reality. It’s an absolute certainty.