Do you realize that you change the genetic function of the people in your life and that they return the favor? We humans are socially-sensitive beings, and for good reason: our survival and evolution (individually and as a species) depend on it.
At a fundamental level, we need other humans just as much as we need air, food, and water. We are that vital for each other. The quality of our relationships has everything to do with our personal quality of life and our longevity. Living in the age of virtual reality, Zoom, and COVID has proven that remote contacts can impact well-being for better or for worse, just like in-person relations do.
Genes Learn from Our Social Interactions
Research is discovering that, for our genes and for us as organisms, it isn’t just the cold hard facts that matter in human situations. Often, it’s the way we perceive things and then translate them mentally and emotionally that really make a difference in how we respond. It also turns out that the social experiences we had in early childhood have a disproportionately large and persistent effect on attitudes and behaviors later in life.
Because they happened when our brains and bodies were getting organized, these early brain connections form the basis for how we evaluate and interpret social occurrences. Life events alter the level of activity in specialized regions of our genetic code, and this adjusts our perception of future happenings. This way of changing how our genome is read is actually a rapid and well-targeted means of adapting body and brain function to social change!
A Modern Challenge for Hunter-Gatherers
Dr. Steven Cole, a researcher at the UCLA School of Medicine, has written about how social dynamics work through our genes to affect health and body function. He has found that modern social challenges can affect immunity in negative ways that seem paradoxical — at least, until we recall our origins.
When humanity was younger, our more communal and outdoors way of living entailed constant exposure to broad varieties of microbes from each other and the environment. Human immune systems adjusted to the risks posed by hunting and gathering food for survival as well as from extensive contact with other humans under not-tremendously-sanitary conditions.
Now, our social interactions and immune challenges are quite different. Dr. Cole notes that when modern humans are faced with social difficulties such as loneliness, low socioeconomic status, grief, childhood trauma, or social instability, immunity has a pronounced tendency to shift towards excessive inflammation and reduced protection from viruses as a direct result of this social adversity. This may partly explain the high incidence of common (they weren’t common until fairly recently!) conditions like depression, heart disease, asthma, dementia, and cancer.
Regaining Social Authenticity
Human communities — and human genes — have advanced within a rich social construct. All our relationships feed our cells, our immunity, and our genes, preparing them for the future. Modern technologies challenge our ancestral modes of connecting, though, and there is nothing quite as reassuring as direct, positive human contact. Whether for work or just because people move around a lot and virtual connection is more convenient, we rely more on distanced relationships than ever before.
Does it sometimes seem like we’re spending more time in alarm mode than in social comfort? How can we share our authentic selves more, and not just the curated online versions of ourselves? Many of us instinctively realize that sharing positive experiences in person is key, and research increasingly links stronger social support with better immune function and long-term health. (Be sure to observe proper precautions as long as we remain under COVID watch, though!)
- Making a healthy meal-type salad or hearty stew, or buckwheat muffins from scratch? Starting to experiment with plant-based foods or bitter plants that send more positive health signals to the brain and body? For more on how bitter is better, here’s a previous posting on the topic. Don’t be too shy to try out new dishes with friends — you may end up with a good laugh and/or an improvement to your recipe.
- According to Dr. Cole, mindfulness exercises and cognitive-behavioral interventions have been identified as effective means of countering some negative effects of social isolation and other types of social adversity. Mind-body practices like yoga, martial arts, and meditation are likely to carry similar benefits, and doing these kinds of things with friends can be profoundly enjoyable!
- Nature time feeds our genes all the right messages for greater mental and physical satisfaction, and again, the effect is amplified by sharing with like-minded others. Whether it’s building raised beds for organic gardening, creating wildlife sanctuary space, or a weekend of low-environmental-impact camping, turning it into a group event extends greater benefit to all.