A very important part of our evolutionary past is how humans have become one of the most social species on the planet. At one time humans, or the species that were our immediate ancestors, were probably more independent and may have only had a relationship to a few other members of their species, usually family members. But at some point in human history humans began to come together and form larger groups. This was evolutionarily advantageous because when they lived in larger groups, members of the group were more likely to survive and pass on their genes. As the generations went on from this point the genes that got passed on were from people who were more likely to come together, cooperate, and live in groups. After enough generations of this these traits eventually became a trademark of modern-day humans. Now we are very social animals.
Connection with other human beings has now become one of the essential aspects to the lifestyle required for humans to thrive. Research has shown that humans have evolved to have 100 to 150 close meaningful relationships. This is most likely because we lived in groups of this number for many years before the birth of the first civilizations. The importance of connection with other humans has been illustrated by the work of Dr. Stephen Porges. He has spent his life studying the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) and it’s development as we grow.
Our ANS is the system humans have that allows us to assess our environment and tell our bodies if we are in a safe or threatening environment. The most important thing to note here is that when we are born this system is not fully developed, and it continues to develop for years after we are born. Proper development is dependent on what a child experiences in the first years of life. From day one a child should be gazing into the loving eyes of their parents and constantly be given cues that they are safe. If they are given the opposite cues this can result in an ANS that is imbalanced and then as they grow they are more likely to respond as if any environment is unsafe.
So, what happens when someone has a childhood that is not filled with cues that tell them they are safe. Many times they end up with a nervous system that interprets their environment as threatening even when it isn’t. This can lead to a domination of the stress response system called our sympathetic nervous system. Over activation of this system has been associated with chronic illness like insomnia, digestive issues, anxiety, depression, and heart attacks to name a few. There is really nothing someone can do about the childhood environment they grew up in, but luckily there is a lot we can do as adults to help rebalance an overstimulated sympathetic nervous system.
Coming full circle, if someone’s ANS did not develop properly and they are more likely to get stuck in a stress state one of the best things they can do to help rebalance their nervous system is to have many positive meaningful relationships. Evolution is all about adapting to the environment that a species is living in. For millions of years humans lived in groups of 100-150 people and were directly connected to the people in that group. To heal our ANS we must recreate this human connection in our modern-day world.
Unfortunately, there are many things working against us. These days we’re are connected on a much grander scale because technology has allowed us to be in contact with many more people and with people who are very far from. But I want to point out the difference between communication and connection. While we communicate with many people using our phones and the internet it is not the same connection we evolved having with our fellow humans. In a way it has made us more isolated as we sit behind our screens communicating with others yet not having the same level of contact that we used to.
I find it ironic that one of the main modern forms of communication today is termed social media because this form of communication has actually made us more socially isolated from a human connection point of view. Isolation from other humans has been associated with many diseases, including heart attacks, and is a major driver of the imbalance in our ANS. To break free of this we much take steps to connect with like minded individuals through direct human contact.
To do this we have to reach out, you must find your tribe. Not only must you find them, but you must go out and meet them. By finding community and positive social relationships you are having a direct positive impact on your health. Humans are social beings and to truly thrive we need to nourish this aspect of our evolved physiology. This is something that we must not overlook as technology continues to progress and give us ever changing social environments.