Today’s article is from a guest blogger, Ben Thomas, an author, journalist, inventor and independent researcher who studies consciousness and the brain. His neuroscience newsgroup, The Connectome, reports the latest brain research on Facebook and Google+, and lots of his articles are available at http://the-connectome.com.
We’ve got a very strange relationship with our elders. I don’t mean our individual relationships with our parents – though there’s no doubt that those can be pretty strange at times. What I mean, though, is that we’re all taught to respect the elderly; to heed their wisdom; to help them cross the street and carry their groceries – and yet, once they reach a certain age (or appearance), we tend to put them off to the side, in communities cloistered off from the world at large. When’s the last time you watched a rambunctious octogenarian captivate a dinner party?
Reasons for this separation are easy to find, if we start looking. For one thing, many seniors – like many people of any age – feel most comfortable hanging out with others who remember the stories, songs and styles of the time when they grew up. Mental and physical health, too, can be safeguarded more effectively within a controlled environment than out in the wide world. And no matter how attentive we are to the needs of an ailing elder, there’s no substitute for a caregiver with professional training – especially if an emergency strikes.
But just as professional caregivers can handle emergencies better than some family members, close friends and family can provide benefits beyond the reach of a paid caregiver: Even the kindest caregiver can’t reproduce the joy of a new grandchild, or trade reminiscences about your family’s long-ago vacations and birthday parties. And a lifetime’s wisdom isn’t the only reward for attending to our elders – a growing body of research supports the idea that including them in our lives may be as crucial for our mental health as for theirs.
Take, for instance, a recent study that found that when we shun others in our social group, our mental anguish is often as severe as theirs. As the journal Psychological Science reports, a team led by the University of Rochester’s Nicole Legate gathered a group of 154 volunteers and sat them down to play a video game that simulated a three-way game of “catch” (sounds thrilling, I know). Legate and her team told the volunteers that they’d each be playing with two remote human players – but the other “players” were actually pre-programmed into the computer.
The other thing the volunteers didn’t know was that Legate and her team had split them into four groups. The first group was told only to throw the ball to one of the other “players” – a player who the other computer player also ignored. In the second group, both computer players “froze out” the human volunteer. The researchers told a third group of volunteers to share the ball equally with both the other players, while a fourth group were allowed to play however they chose.
Before and after the game, the researchers gave the volunteers a survey that analyzed their “sense of autonomy, competence, and relatedness” – their social confidence, in other words. As you might expect, people who got shunned by both computer players rated lower after the game than before. What’s more surprising, though is that people who followed instructions to shun one of the other players rated just as low as those who’d been shunned.
What’s more, previous research has found that social exclusion activates some of the same brain areas as physical pain – while some people even report that their psychological anguish actually becomes physical after years of exclusion from social connectivity. So it’s hardly a leap to say that when we shun others, we’re quite literally inviting pain on ourselves. Social exclusion hurts the excluders most of all.
Although not all of us have an elderly relative who needs in-home therapy, we’ve all got people in our lives who need attention. And unlike some of the volunteers in Legate’s study, we all have the choice of who to include in our fun times. Who in your life might like to be included?
by Ben Thomas (http://the-connectome.com)