This post is the second of two parts. In the first part I noted how virtual communication channels take out human emotion, leading to increased isolation and loneliness. The posts are based on my forthcoming book, Can You Hear Me?, to be published by Harvard in October.
How does this second source of emotional connection work? It’s simple, really: we can’t help trying to connect with one another. Here’s how.
A team of Italian researchers was studying the basic workings of the brain, using monkeys as subjects, in the 1990s. The researchers gave out peanuts as rewards for good behavior. The peanuts caused the monkeys’ pleasure circuits to light up, as the machines they were hooked up to showed.
One researcher ate a peanut himself rather than give it to the monkey, which could see the both the offending researcher and the peanut. Rather than registering anger, as you might expect, the monkey’s pleasure circuits lit up just as if the monkey had received the peanut itself.
This surprising result led to a discovery. When we (and monkeys) see someone else experience an emotion, that same emotion fires in our heads—thanks to what the researchers called mirror neurons. The far more powerful and important source of empathy, then, is these mirror neurons. Our brains themselves produce in our own heads the same emotions that we witness in people around us.
This is what human connection really is: the hard wiring in our brains forces us to feel the same emotion that other people around us feel. We crave this emotional connection because we’re hardwired to experience it, and we suffer when it’s removed. In the virtual space, mirror neurons don’t fire, because they don’t get the information they need to do so.
How does this failure happen? Take away the visual field, restrict the tonal field, and you hugely hamper connection. You’re back to relying on the uncertain activity of the imagination. Most of us are more like acting students in this regard than that Broadway star. We’re a bit tentative when it comes to the imaginary projection into other people’s emotions; sometimes we get it wrong. Sometimes we imagine the wrong emotion or the wrong intensity. And sometimes we don’t bother at all.
What else happens when emotional connection is restricted? Oddly enough, in addition to behaving badly toward others, we lose the ability to make decisions—especially group decisions—as readily as before. Why? Because, stripped down to the basics, decision making is about sharing emotions. Emotions allow us a way of weighing the relative importance of all the inputs involved. If you and your partner are trying to decide on a new floor in the kitchen, for example, emotions make the decision possible. You and your partner mirror each other, share emotions, and find out how important various aspects of the decisions are. You like the tile, but that reminds your partner of a childhood kitchen—and that’s a bad thing. Or, it’s a good thing. Mirror neurons help you determine the difference. In the end, you go with the wood floor because it reminds both of you of that wonderful Airbnb place you stayed at six months ago. You just loved the rustic feel and the open, airy sense of space the kitchen had.
Humans base decisions on emotions. Most of the decisions we make are made like that flooring decision. Or they’re made even faster, with less reflection, and with an even greater reliance on emotions (and mirror neurons). Do you take a different route to work to miss the traffic? Do you decide to go out to the movies? Do you say yes to your boss when he or she offers you that new project (more responsibility, more work, but do it well, and you might get a raise)?
You can draw a straight line from emotions to decision making to mirror neurons. Interrupt that straight line with virtual instead of face-to-face connections, and our communications suffer. That’s what’s at the root of our virtual isolation today.