5 Lessons from Science about Human Connection

#1 Survival of the Kindest

Among early humans, it was those who could work together and form collaborative relationships who survived the hazards of predators, climate and rival tribes. Evolution favoured cooperation and empathy.

We’ve come to understand that when Darwin spoke of ‘survival of the fittest’ he meant the individual who was strongest prevailed. Here’s what he actually said:

A tribe including many members who, from possessing in a high degree the spirit of patriotism, fidelity, obedience, courage, and sympathy, were always ready to aid one another, and to sacrifice themselves for the common good, would be victorious over most other tribes; and this would be natural selection”.

It is not selfish individuals but mutually supportive groups who have survived and thrived.

The ‘selfish gene’ simply doesn’t stand up to the facts of biology. In the 1980s, scientists discovered we and other species have mirror neurons, which fire whether a person makes an action themselves or sees someone else doing so. It is our empathy circuit: our brains react in the same way to other people’s experiences as it does to our own.

This ability to ‘read minds’ makes us fundamentally compassionate. Research has repeatedly revealed that our instinct is to choose another’s wellbeing over our own interests.

#2 The Importance of Connection

Loneliness is the number one reason people seek therapy today, says Stanford Professor Emma Seppala. It is also terrible for our bodies:

loneliness is a greater detriment to health than obesity, smoking and high blood pressure“.

You may or may not feel that loneliness applies to you, but just how well are you connecting?

For the sake of our psychological and physical wellbeing, we must connect and feel we belong. People who feel they have good, close relationships not only have better psychological health but also higher immunity, faster recovery from disease, and greater longevity.

Having problems in our relationships triggers our body’s stress response. Remember, social conflict was a genuine threat to life and limb out on the prehistoric savanna where we relied on the group for survival. The consequence is that those with poor connections experience more anxiety and depression and have worse physical health.

#3 Positivity Resonance

While good relationships are our life blood, we also benefit hugely from even momentary connections.

Researchers have found that any time we feel a mutual bond with someone, no matter how fleeting, our neurons fire in synchrony and our brains release the same neurotransmitters so that we both experience a burst of positive emotion.

This positive emotion is none other than love???? (The science name is ‘positivity resonance’.)

Biosynchronous moments of shared love improve mood and wellbeing, lower stress and improve physical health. They also deepen the bond and commitment between people – they are the ‘secret sauce’ in fledgling and established relationships.

These micro-moments of connection happen all the time, like when you give way to another driver and they catch your eye and smile, or the times you share a laugh with a co-worker, or when a friend gives an encouraging look in the middle of a hard day.

As with all positive emotions, the key to feeling the benefit of micro-connections is to practise paying attention to them and seeking out more opportunities to experience them in daily life.

Once you start looking, you can feel connected anytime, anywhere to anyone.

#4 Altruism

It’s not just about how much we get from relationships. It’s a lot to do with what we give.

Professor Stephen G. Post’s research has shown that altruism has a positive effect on the giver’s health and happiness. When we can help someone, we feel useful and valued, generating feel-good chemicals that have a positive effect on our bodies and minds.

When I feel myself starting to slide down, I don’t do something for myself. I try to do something for someone else,” says Johann Hari in his powerful book examining depression, Lost Connections.

Darwin showed that natural selection favours not the strongest individual but the most cooperative group with ‘hive emotions’ – shared empathy, love, gratitude, admiration and forgiveness – which bolster connectedness.

When we experience these emotions towards others, we, too, benefit.

#5 Share the Good Times

Research tells us that how we respond to other people’s good news predicts the health of our relationships with them.

When your partner or friend tells you some good news, do you fully pay attention, asking the person all about the experience and showing you’re glad for them? You’ll have a deeper and closer relationship if you do.

When we don’t show enough interest, or when we focus on problems or worries about the news, or when we change the subject and turn away, we damage our bonds.

We need to celebrate together. We need to actively and constructively support the people in our lives for our relationships to thrive.


#1 Goleman, D. (2006) Social Intelligence: The new science of human relationships, London, Arrow Books.

Keltner, D (2009) Born to be Good: The science of a meaningful life, New York, Norton & Company.

Lieberman, M. D. (2013) Social: Why our brains are wired to connect, New York, Crown Publishers.

#2 Seppala, E., Rossomando. T., Doty, J. R. (2013). Social Connection and Compassion: Important Predictors of Health and Well-Being. Social Research Quarterly, Vol. 80, no. 2.

#3 Fredrickson, B. (2013) Love 2.0: Finding Happiness and Health in Moments of Connection, New York, Plume Books.

#4 Post, S. G. (2005) Altruism, Happiness & Health: It’s Good to be Good. International Journal of Behavioral Medicine, Vol. 12, No. 2, 66–77.

#5 Seligman, P. (2011) Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Wellbeing, New York, Free Press.

Photo by OC Gonzalez on Unsplash

The Science of Attachment and Emotional Attunement


According to psychologist D. W. Winnicott (1964), humans are born to be in relationships with others. This is evidenced by infants (and, to a lesser extent, young children) being so helpless that they must rely on others for all needs to be met.

The idea that attachment can be innate is supported by Lorenz’s discovery that goslings attach to (‘imprint on’) the first moving object they see, whether goose, thing or researcher. Given the long period of human infancy, it has been argued that it is adaptive for humans to form attachments to caregivers.

The nature of this attachment was once understood as being purely utilitarian, in that the infant needed practical needs fulfilling, such as nourishment and protection. A hundred years ago, parents were even urged not to pick up their young children in order to encourage independence.

However, Harlow (1958) challenged such assumptions by proposing that infants’ need for ‘contact comfort’ is as essential, if not more so, than their need for ‘primary drives’, such as eating, to be fulfilled. In experiments with infant macaque monkeys raised in captivity and in isolation, Harlow discovered that the monkeys preferred wire frames covered in cloth to cloth-less wire frames with integrated milk feeders. In other words, when offered the choice between sustenance and the comfort of something that approximated a caregiver, the infants chose comfort.

Twenty-first century advances in neuroscience have provided evidence that humans are ‘wired to connect’ (e.g. Lieberman, 2013; Goleman, 2006), but in the mid-twentieth century, Harlow’s findings were revolutionary. They added weight to the ideas of Bowlby, who argued that children are negatively impacted by poor parenting or the loss of or separation from a parent.

Bowlby proposed that how we relate to others and ourselves, and how we experience the relationship between the two, is determined in early childhood based on our repeated experiences with caregivers. While he acknowledged this can be modified with new experiences of relating, he believed that our early lessons in attachment persist across the lifespan.

This internalised belief system he described as an ‘internal working model’ (IWM), which he regarded as templates for all relationships (Bowlby, 1969). It comprises three elements:

Self – how capable we are at getting our needs met, and how worthy we feel of this

Other – how much we can rely on significant others to comfort and care for us

Relational – how well the relationship between self and other can weather challenges and sustain effective communication

Bowlby’s theory was advanced by the work of Ainsworth (1962), who suggested four attachment types as IWMs. She found empirical support through the design of an experiment called the Strange Situation Test (SST) (Ainsworth et al, 1978).

By conducting the SST with 9-18 month olds, Ainsworth found Type B (secure attachment) infants behaved in predicted ways when reunited with their mothers after a short absence during which a stranger interacted with them. Such behaviour included being distressed at the absence of their mother and seeking and accepting comfort and emotional regulation from her when she returned.

In contrast, Type A (insecure-avoidant) infants did not appear distressed when their mothers left, and avoided interaction when they returned. Type C (insecure-resistant or ambivalent), on the other hand, sought contact with the returned mother, but then rejected her. Finally, Type D (disorganised or disoriented) exhibited contradictory behaviour and appeared apprehensive about approaching their mothers.

These researchers proposed three components of a secure attachment: emotional communication, sensitivity and mind-mindedness.

Emotional communication involves children being empowered to show a full range of emotions and learning that all emotions are valid by caregivers responding appropriately to the full spectrum of emotion states.

Sensitivity means caregivers gauge the infant’s needs and emotional states accurately and respond suitably, as opposed to over- or under-stimulating her, responding out of sync, or rejecting her.

Mind-mindedness is akin to sensitivity, in that it involves being in attunement with the infant, but it goes a step further, as to demonstrate mind-mindedness is to show accurate understanding of the child’s mental states by verbalising these. For instance, if a child is crying and the caregiver returns to comfort her, they show sensitivity, but when they also correctly recognise the child is crying because she feels distressed at their absence, and they talk to her about what’s ‘on her mind’ (e.g. “you were worried because I left the room and you wanted me to come back”), this is mind-mindedness.

Research has found that it is the number of non-attuned comments that predicts that the infant will have an insecure attachment type.

Emotional Attunement

An ‘emotion’ has five components:

1. Physiological (e.g. increased heart rate when hearing a noise in the night)

2. Behaviour (e.g. freezing or escaping)

3. Cognition (e.g. perceiving a threat)

4. Affect (e.g. fear)

5. Context (e.g. camping alone in bear country; culture’s and/or family’s attitude toward bears)

These five aspects represent the systemic nature of emotions and explains why emotional triggers, appraisal and expression are highly mediated by culture and personal interpretation.

Emotional experience emerges from the interplay between these five facets of emotion and the complex social environments we exist in (Smith and Thelen, 2003). The dynamic and interpersonal nature of emotional experience is demonstrated in Lavelli and Fogel’s (2005) study in which infants not only responded to caregivers but actively elicited interaction, so that the pairs entered a cycle of “mutual amplification”.

Tronick et al’s (1978) Still Face Paradigm (SFP) showed what happens when this dynamic interplay is interrupted. SFP involves an initial stage where infant and caregiver interact warmly, followed by a period when the carer ceases to interact and adopts a still face, followed by a return to the interaction. The findings revealed that when the interaction was disrupted, the infants were distressed, tried to reengage the carer, and managed their emotions by turning their gaze away. Once interaction resumed, the infants reengaged but with less positive affect.

The implications of this are substantial. It is evidence that infants’ emotional experience is mediated by others, which means this can be shaped – for better or for worse. In a review of the key literature, Morris et al. (2007) proposed that it is in terms of emotional regulation (ER) that caregivers affect infants’ emotional development.

Emotional regulation consists of internal and external processes involved in initiating, maintaining, and modulating the occurrence, intensity, and expression of emotion” (Thompson, 1994, cited in Morris et al., 2007, p. 363).

There are three mechanisms by which caregivers influence infants’ emotional regulation: modelling, parenting practices, and the emotional climate of the family (Morris et al., 2007). Other factors do undoubtedly play a role, such as peers, culture and the bidirectional nature of the carer-infant relationship, but caregiver influences remain important.

Firstly, children learn through observation, and so modelling appropriate emotional responses is a means of positively influencing their development.

Secondly, parenting practices – that is, parents’ behaviour and discourse around emotions, what strategies they teach, and what their meta-emotion philosophy is – are key influencers.

Finally, the emotional climate of the family is shown to play a powerful role in children’s emotional formation, and so ensuring that this promotes emotional regulation and emotional security is essential. Emotions are contagious, and so the (dis)harmony of the familial relationships is absorbed by the child, as is the ‘family expressiveness’ (i.e. the levels of positive/negative emotions exhibited). When negativity reigns, or there is simmering unease or outright animosity between family members, or the parenting style is such that the caregivers are overly demanding or under-responsive, the child experiences emotional insecurity (because they cannot be sure their needs will be met) and emotional dysregulation (because they are overwhelmed by emotions they have not learned to regulate).


Ainsworth, M. D. (1962) ‘The effects of material deprivation: a review of findings and controversy in the context of research strategy’, Deprivation of Maternal Care: A Reassessment of Its Effects, (Public Health Papers, No. 14), Geneva, World Health Organisation.

Ainsworth, M. D. S., Blehar, M. C., Waters, E. and Wall, S. (1978) Patterns of Attachment: A Psychological Study of the Strange Situation, Hillsdale, NJ, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Bowlby, J. (1969) Attachment and Loss: Volume 1. Attachment, New York, Basic Books.

Goleman, D. (2006) Social Intelligence: The new science of human relationships, London, Arrow Books.

Harlow, H. F. (1958) ‘The nature of love’, American Psychologist, vol. 13, pp. 673-85.

Lavelli, M. and Fogel, A. (2005) ‘Developmental changes in the relationship between the infant’s attention and emotion during early face-to-face communication: the 2-month transition’, Developmental Psychology, vol. 41, no. 1, pp. 265-80.

Lieberman, M. D. (2013) Social: Why our brains are wired to connect, New York, Crown Publishers.

Morris, A. S., Silk, J. S., Steinberg, L., Myers, S. S., and Robinson, L. R. (2007) ‘The Role of the Family Context in the Development of Emotion Regulation’, Social Development, vol. 16, no. 2, pp. 361-388

Smith, L. B. and Thelen, E. (2003) ‘Development as a dynamic system’, TRENDS in Cognitive Sciences, vol. 7, no. 8, pp.343-8.

Tronick, E. Z., Als, H., Adamson, L., Wise, S. and Brazelton, T. B. (1978) ‘The infant’s response to entrapment between contradictory messages in face-to-face interaction’, Journal of the American Academy of Child Psychiatry, vol. 17. no. 1, pp. 1-13.

Winnicott, D. W. (1964) The Child, the Family and the Outside World, London, Pelican Books.

Photo by Caroline Hernandez on Unsplash

Wired to Connect

Social exclusion registers in the same regions of the brain as physical pain. In other words, being ostricised is as harmful, even life-threatening, as being physically hurt.

Let that sink in for a moment.

When kids shun a classmate at lunch, when a colleague is short with you, or when a lover storms off, the pain is as real as a punch to the stomach.

Not convinced? fMRI scans show the pain responses in the brain reduce when a sufferer of ‘social pain’ takes a Tylenol.

According to UCLA’s Matthew Lieberman, a lead researcher in the emerging field of social cognitive neuroscience (the study of what happens in the brain when people interact), Maslow has the hierarchy of needs in the wrong order. It is not food, water and shelter that are the primary conditions for survival. It is human connection.

Social brain

Human offspring are remarkably incapable of taking care of themselves. As infants, we simply cannot live without reliable providers of sustenance, protection, training and comfort. To survive, we’ve evolved to be mutually connected. Babies and children unleash a full arsenal to galvanise bigger people to fulfill their needs, from crying and looking adorable, to sharing an oxytocin high with their caregiver and imbuing life with a sense of meaning.

Inter-dependency doesn’t end in childhood. Among early humans, it was those who could garner cooperation and navigate the social landscape who survived the hazards of saber tooth tigers, inhospitable terrain and murderous tribesmen. Evolution favoured social intelligence, and to this day – counter to popular belief – it is cooperation and empathy that are powerful allies of success.

Survival of the kindest

According to Daniel Goleman, who popularised the concept of emotional intelligence and writes compellingly about the social brain in his seminal book, Social Intelligenceeffective leaders are those who “develop a genuine interest in and [have a] talent for fostering positive feelings in the people whose cooperation and support [they] need”.

We are not all here thanks to ‘survival of the fittest’ then (a theory erroneously attributed to Darwin but actually promoted by Herbert Spencer to justify class and racial hierarchy). We are here because of ‘survival of the kindest‘ (Darwin’s actual meaning).

Skeptics might argue that at heart we are self-interested, that it’s a fundamentally selfish, dog-eat-dog world. They are wrong. This view is based in archaic theories that have been thoroughly debunked by the discovery of mirror neurons: the mechanism for empathy. Simply, when someone else suffers or rejoices, our own cerebral neurons mirror their experience so that we feel it ourselves. Ever cried at a sad film or winced at an outtake reel?

This ability to ‘read minds’ and empathise means that our first urge is to be compassionate, not self-interested. Research with not only rats and primates but also human infants and adults repeatedly reveals an instinct for compassion over selfishness – of choosing another’s wellbeing over our own interests.

The discovery of mirror neurons has another important implication. We can no longer conceive of our fellow humans as separate, isolated others. We are literally all part of the same neural network. As Goleman writes,

“[It is] not a case of two (or more) independent brains reacting consciously or unconsciously to each other. Rather, the individual minds become, in a sense, fused into a single system”.

Connection is oxygen

For the intimacy-shy, that’s a powerful realisation. It is not a character flaw to need people; connecting is as essential as oxygen.

Healthy connectionsAccording to Stanford professor Emma Seppala, loneliness is the number one reason people seek therapy today. The side effect of being wired to connect is that relationships matter so much, not having them or having them go wrong can be excruciating.

For the sake of our psychological and physical wellbeing, we must connect and connect well. People who feel they have good, close relationships not only have better psychological health but also higher immunity, faster recovery from disease, and greater longevity.

Those with poor connections experience more anxiety and depression, are more likely to commit suicide and violence, have worse physical health, and live shorter lives. Seppala isn’t kidding when she says,

“loneliness is a greater detriment to health than obesity, smoking and high blood pressure“.

It’s not just about how much we get from relationships either. It’s also about what we give. Professor Stephen G. Post’s research has shown that altruism has a positive effect on the giver’s health and happiness. When we can help someone else we feel useful and valued, improving our wellbeing in every way.

Prioritising social

Knowing the power of social gives us cause to consider how much we manoeuvre our lives to keep human connection central. Are we working too much? Are we caught up in our own heads? Are we hiding from intimacy for fear of (very real, it turns out) slings and arrows? How much we prioritise our relationships is worth serious contemplation. As Lieberman says,

“Being social is our superpower, and not knowing in our guts the value of social – the real, literal value of social – is our greatest kryptonite”.

Further reading:

Tips to improve wellbeing through connection, compassion, altruism and gratitude

Ideas for building relationships from the NHS

How to improve your wellbeing from mental health charity Mind

Report from the Mental Health Foundation: Relationships in the 21st century

TED talk about mirror neurons

Photo by Ahmad Dirini on Unsplash