404: Human Connection Not Found

Why and how digital media doesn’t fulfill our biological need to connect.

Art by the incredible,  Steve Cutts

Art by the incredible, Steve Cutts

Having made the leap from social and digital media to therapy, people frequently ask me whether activities like texting or scrolling Twitter are bad for our mental health. Like most questions about mental health, the answer is: It’s Complicated. That said, we are learning a lot about what our nervous system needs from relationships and how various mediums of digital connection fair in meeting those needs. With the hope that a brief overview will empower you to make the best possible digital media consumption decisions for you, here’s a bit of the science behind what our social engagement system needs to stay healthy, as well as some tips to make sure you’re getting your daily, minimum dose.

To understand what we need, it is imperative to understand how we’re built. Until very recently (in evolutionary terms), our survival depended upon maintaining strong bonds with a small group of people, working together to stay safe, fed and healthy. Today, the humans we work with to pay the bills are rarely the humans who make us feel safe and understood. In fact, they may make us feel the opposite! While strong bonds play an increasingly small role in our daily survival, our nervous system is still operating under the assumption that close relationships are a biological imperative. Said another way, the release of the iSapien is thousands of years out. Until then, we’re stuck with Sapien.us.

If you read the user’s manual for the Sapien.us, you’ll discover that the nervous system relies on constant, positive signals from the touch, embrace, gaze, vocal tones, facial expressions and gestures of those around us. These signals tell our entire nervous system that we are safe within our troop. In turn, we remain calm and balanced (1). When these signals are absent, our nervous system becomes chronically stressed, leading to hypertension, anxiety depression and other illnesses that result from chronic sympathetic activation. That’s why strong, social bonds are the most important predictor of longevity, beating out smoking, drinking and obesity, by a country-mile (2).

Alarmingly, many of us report having few-to-no strong connections, or a severe lack of quality time with the few connections that we maintain (3). While digital technologies can help us with the latter challenge, even the most cathartic facetime with a bestie robs us of the oxytocin releasing power of a hug, the regulating pulse of a heartbeat, or the parasympathetic activation of a relaxed jaw. Switch to a phone call, and all of the visual cues in the social engagement system are gone. Analyze a text message, and the social engagement system is completely absent! That’s why we like Emojis so much - if we can send each other faces, hands and feet, we aren’t completely disembodied!

Things get worse when we move from direct communication to passively consuming the endless barrage of curated posts on social media. To feel connected, we need permission to be vulnerable, to say: “This is the real me, right now” and hear “I see you, I care about you and I accept you” in return (4). When humans lived in small villages and nomadic tribes, it was hard not to be real and transparent about how you were doing. Conversely; in today’s world, it requires bravery to make an authentic bid for acceptance, when everyone around you seems to be having a spill-free, blemish free, perfect hair day life on Instagram. For most of us, social media isn’t about broadcasting the scary, gross or mundane moments that are a part of being human, it is about fluffing our plumage and getting high volume, low quality validation in return. So, we slap a Disney Princess filter on our selfie, leaving our need (and our followers need) for authentic connection unmet. We can’t be vulnerable unless we feel safe and feeling safe means feeling connected.

Art by the incredible,  Steve Cutts

Art by the incredible, Steve Cutts

If you’re still reading this post, I’ve either completely bummed you out; or, you’re on google searching for a technology-free commune to join ASAP. In reality, the majority of us cannot lead a lifestyle that makes our rather antiquated nervous system content, nor can we download an “I-don’t-need-relationships-patch;” however, we can invest in coping strategies that will help our fancy primate plumbing run as smoothly as possible in a world full of blockages and barriers. Here are three tips for maintaining a healthy, social engagement system:

  1. If you don’t spend the majority of your day with people who provide social cues that you’re seen, safe and cared for; assume that you’re in a state of chronic sympathetic arousal (1). While consistent access to at least 3 strong relationships is ideal, there are a bunch of non-social tools that help to restore sympathetic/parasympathetic balance, like: yoga, singing (chanting at a low frequency is especially regulating), Chigong and Meditation (make sure there is significant breath work involved)

  2. When the humans around you aren’t doing the trick, other species can step in to provide unconditional, positive regard. In fact, humans have co-evolved with certain domesticated animals (like dogs) to the degree that we activate each other’s oxytocin release systems when we interact (5). How cute is that? Yes, I’m telling you to get a dog; or, at least to start volunteering at the SPCA once a week

  3. Treat your relationships as imperative to your health, because they are! Save not sleeping, drinking water or eating, isolation will kill you faster than almost anything else. Knowing that we are increasingly anxious about getting close (and being vulnerable); it may take some courage to be the instigator of tribe building. That said, wouldn’t it feel really good to be on the receiving end of this compliment: “There’s a lot of evidence that close relationships are imperative to your health. You are really important to me and your friendship is such a joy in my life. I know we’re both busy and it isn’t always easy, but spending time with you is a priority for me.” Being that vulnerable is scary, but essential if we hope to thrive.


© Galyn Burke, 2018

Olaf-Making-Snow-Angels-Frozen.gif

I am a snowflake

And so are you.

When I am not with other therapists or clients, I stop using terms like ‘microaggression’ and ‘safe space’ because they have become trigger words in our divided political and cultural climate. In fact, if I dare to say them, I am almost assured to be labeled a snowflake. Here’s the thing. I am a snowflake, and so are you. Here’s why.

300 million years ago, mammals came on the scene. To work together, care for each other and die for each other, mammals needed to make some edits to the 500 million-year-old, threat response that we inherited from our reptilian ancestors. Biology takes a “waste not, want not” approach to evolution; so, mammals simply built a new pathway from the reptilian defense system to our newly minted, social engagement system, comprised of cranial nerves associated with inputs like facial muscle tension, tone of voice and head position. The rules were simple: Use the social engagement branch of the vagus nerve when available. If unavailable, revert to the old-school system. Meaning, if you come in contact with a stranger who smiles and speaks in a non-menacing tone, downregulate your fight/flight response. If you come across a tiger, run! (1)

For the most part, this system update is serving us well. Unfortunately, there is one feature that is proving tricky. The newer branch (e.g. the social branch) is inhibitory to the older branch; meaning, we rely on constant, positive inputs from the social branch to inhibit both the flight/flight and the freeze responses of our older, vagus pathway. Basically, our nervous system needs to scan for and find safety in our environment in order to stay balanced. That means, when people speak to us in menacing tones, turn their faces away when we solicit eye contact, or clench their jaw and widen their eyes at what we say, our nervous system loses the ability to stay balanced. (1) Here’s why. Finding our place in society is a core task of survival; thus, simply losing positive feedback from our family or community is deeply distressing, just ask this kid:

Over the long-haul, if we live in an environment where safety cues are chronically unavailable (e.g. we’re a working class, white male who’s community is dissolving under the pressure of job loss and fewer economic prospects, or we’re an African American professional trying to fit in at a predominantly white school or business); our nervous system begins to suffer from the types of illnesses that result from chronic dysregulation, like heart disease, IBS, hypertension, or fibromyalgia. If simply not getting constant, positive feedback can cause chronic dysregulation, trauma at the hands of those around us adds massive amounts of fuel to the fire.

But wait, there’s more. Because one system is intended to override the other; when our older, fight/flight/freeze system is activated, we cannot engage in social behaviors. So, the more traumatized and unsafe we are, the less capable we become to remedy the discord we’re experiencing with the “other” in question (1). Said plainly:

Whether angry, scared or disconnected, the remedy is a safe and cohesive community.

The data to support this assertion are compelling. The strongest predictors of longevity are: 1. Social bonds; and 2. Close relationships. In fact, social disconnection is far more likely to kill you than smoking (2)! So, how do we build strong communities? Each community is different and repairing a fractured social structure is a challenge; however, if I have (hopefully) inspired you to invest in making your community stronger, please consider these points along the way:

  1. A strong community is a safe community. Remember when I said that our capacity to engage in prosocial behavior is contingent upon the downregulation of our fight/flight or freeze response? We are literally unable to be good citizens if we aren’t safe. So, if you’re upset about the state of your community and you react by clenching your jaw, yelling at people or turning away, just know that you’re moving away from (not toward) creating communal safety (1).

  2. The more diverse a community, the more safety it needs. We are born with both unconscious biases and the capacity to overcome them. In fact, our ability to override the inherent fear and suspicion of those who do not share our skin color or language is one of the evolutionary mutations that made us the dominant species that we are today (3). That said, overriding the amygdala’s release of cortisol when we see an “other” requires using all three parts of our triune brain. As you might have guessed by now, this amazing feat is impossible when our fight/flight or freeze response has been activated (4). So, we not only need to be taught the ideas that bond us (like human rights and equal opportunity); we also need to be safe and secure enough to execute this highly sophisticated brain capability in our day-to-day lives.

  3. Consider changing the system. While invisible, the social structures in which we live have a deep impact on our health. In fact, there is a direct (and as this hardcore statistician dares to claim, causal) relationship between inequality and 200, key health indicators (5). The more unequal a society becomes, the less healthy its citizens become; and, not just the citizens at the bottom. Whether it is a lack of purpose and connection at the very top, or systemic racism and poverty at the bottom, those who live in unequal social structures suffer more illnesses and live shorter lives. So, as you evaluate how your economy and your government are functioning, know that health care isn’t the only policy that will impact your health.

    © Galyn Burke, 2018

Therapy jargon, in plain English

You’re looking for a therapist. You do some google searches, you check out yelp. You find a therapist who is collaborative and has a warm and nonjudgmental approach. You’re intrigued. You keep scrolling. Just below the inspirational Carl Jung quote and right before the lotus graphic, you hit the section where the therapist tells you about their ‘orientation’ as a clinician. First of all, what does ‘orientation’ even mean? Maybe it will make sense if you keep reading? Nope. Plus, what’s with all the acronyms? CBT? DBT? EFT?…WTF?

While this list is in no way exhaustive, here is a brief explanation of some of the most commonly used therapy terms. If you have a term that you’re curious about that isn’t covered, leave me a comment and I’ll do my best to add it.

ATTACHMENT:

As human beings, we are born helpless and completely at the mercy of our caretakers. We have strong, neurological wiring that motivates us to attach to our biological parents, regardless of how good they are at parenting. In fact, the biological urge to win the love of a birth parent is so strong that we choose a dismissive or abusive birth parent over a kind, attentive surrogate caretaker. Especially in childhood, but throughout our lives, the way our caretakers treat us shapes how we see ourselves, which plays an integral role in how we make our way in the world. We also lean on our early attachment figures to show us how to make sense of the behavior of others, and how we should respond when people behave a certain way toward us. Thus, our early attachment figures have a strong impact on how we see ourselves, how we see the world; and thus, the thoughts, feelings and actions that comprise our identity.

Because our primary relationships and early experiences are incredibly influential over who we become, a lot of work for adult clients entails identifying, examining, challenging and rewiring some of thoughts, feelings and behaviors that spring from the formative relationships we have with our caregivers. While each human is complex and we don’t all fit into one box; extensive observation and study has yielded four attachment styles that are commonly referred to in psychology:

  1. Secure attachment. My early caretakers safely and consistently met my needs. As an adult, I enter into relationships expecting people to meet my needs and treat me well, but I will walk away from a relationship where I am not treated as I deserve to be treated.

  2. Anxious-avoidant attachment. My early caretakers frequently denied or invalidated my needs. In response, I learned to hide them at an early age. As an adult, I am often unaware of how much I need to connect with others. When I do get close, I become anxious and feel that I’m better off alone, or that I should hide deep or unfavorable emotions from my partner in order to avoid rejection, which makes even my close relationships distant in certain ways.

  3. Anxious-resistant attachment. My caretakers were inconsistent in meeting my needs, which has made very reactive when I perceive that I will be abandoned or let down. As an adult, I am clingy and needy. I become upset or angry when I sense that I might be abandoned or when I feel that someone has neglected me for too long.

  4. Disorganized attachment. My caretakers were sometimes threatening to my safety when I tried to get my needs met. As an adult, I am both drawn to and scared of close relationships; thus, I may behave in erratic and disorganized ways when I become close to other people.

The impact of attachment lasts far beyond childhood, as it provides a template for how we conduct adult relationships. When we suffer from some degree of insecure attachment or begin a relationship with someone who is insecurely attached, we may experience strong and unpleasant reactions when our partners unwittingly do or say something that we associate with a negative or painful aspect of a primary attachment relationship. For example, an avoidant adult may have been dismissed when they showed too much emotion, leading them to withdraw from their partner when they become overwhelmed or triggered. If that partner is resistant in their attachment, they may become clingy and aggressive when the sense their partner withdrawing, leaving the avoidant partner feeling cornered. Ironically, their goals are the same: to prevent rejection or abandonment. Unfortunately, the way they’ve learned to get this mutual need met is completely contradictory and explosive, causing conflict in the relationship.

Because our drive to bond with and be shaped by our caretakers is embedded in our biology, the validity of attachment theory is becoming increasingly neurobiological, not just observational. In fact, advancements in neuroscience have shown us that our primary attachment wiring (e.g. conclusions we made about ourselves in our primary attachment relationships) is activated when we pair bond with romantic partners. This is known as adult attachment, which (unsurprisingly) plays a key role in couples therapy. Consequently, while it may seem a bit psychodynamic (don’t worry, I’ll get to that term eventually) to explore your childhood in therapy, “what gets in early, gets in deep.” Thus, attachment is an important piece of the puzzle when figuring out how to build a future that isn’t driven by your past.

CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy):

Before Beck’s method of CBT took the therapy world by storm, analyzing what happened to you (V1.0 = Psychoanalysis, V2.0 = Psychodynamic) was the predominant modality of the day. Don’t get me wrong, understanding how we come to suffer is important; however, if “knowing is half the battle,” the other half is doing what it takes to change the thoughts, feelings and behaviors that are causing distress. Luckily, the relatively healthy brain can be re-wired if we change the thought patterns, emotions and behaviors that construct our daily lives. Thus, CBT focuses on helping the client to:

  1. Identify and dispute unrealistic or counterproductive thoughts;

  2. Question and challenge the unpleasant emotions associated with these thoughts; and,

  3. Execute a behavioral plan that will weaken the negative, cognitive circuitry that has been identified, while simultaneously rewiring those same, thinking, feeling and doing systems to better serve our health and happiness.

CBT is awesome and I use it all the time; however, it can prove insufficient when trauma is involved or when your client is a kid or young adult and doesn’t have a fully formed neocortex. Here’s why. When we are not traumatized, we can easily keep all three parts of our triune brain (reptilian, mammalian and neocortex) online. When we have suffered trauma, our neocortex (rational brain) is often pushed offline when our older brains (reptilian in conjunction with mammalian) get triggered. What’s more, our neocortex isn’t fully developed until we’re 26; so, younger clients may not have the neocortical firepower necessary to execute a complex CBT plan.

Either way, there are many instances in which we are simply not able to identify and challenge a negative thought, much less update our behavioral response to it. In cases of trauma, we often need to identify, externalize and process the emotional landmine that causes our triune brain to scramble, before we can enjoy the rewiring benefits that CBT can provide. For children and adolescents, we need to focus on distress tolerance and emotional regulation before pushing for drastic, behavioral change.

DBT (Dialectical Behavior Therapy)

DBT is perhaps the most comprehensive modality available. Developed by the amazing Marsha Linehan, PhD, ABPP to treat some of the most challenging mental illnesses (like Borderline Personality Disorder); DBT is so effective at fomenting lasting, positive change because it accesses and helps the client to re-wire all three layers of the triune brains. The result is integration; meaning, what the way a client thinks aligns with how they feel and is supported by what they do.

If practiced as it was intended to be practiced, DBT is very comprehensive, extolling both individual psychotherapy and group skills training. Since we become who we are in relationships, we also change through positive relationships. Thus, the individual and social focus of DBT is especially effective and comprehensive. The core skills that clients learn via DBT therapy are:

  1. Mindfulness

  2. Emotion regulation

  3. Distress tolerance

  4. Interpersonal effectiveness.

Thus, DBT helps you to:

  1. Understand what is going on inside your body and mind;

  2. Develop the skills necessary to become less reactive to the negative thoughts, feelings and behaviors that are causing you to suffer; and,

  3. Tolerate the distress that has caused you to engage in negative coping behaviors to lessen the pain (e.g. using a drug, cutting, withdrawing socially, etc).

Once these skills are in place, DBT therapists encourage you to apply them in relationships with others, which is both healing and preventative of future distress.

One of my favorite conceptualizations within DBT it the assertion that it can be simultaneously true that we are doing the best that we can with the tools we currently have, but that we can also do better in the future. Biologically, this is absolutely true. Who we currently are is the result of our biology, our experiences and our environment; however, if we come to understand how these factors have shaped us thus far and how we want to change; if we can handle the corresponding distress, we can absolutely change the way we engage with ourselves, with others and with our environment. These changes will, in turn, change our brains.

EBP (Evidence Based Therapy):

You down with EBP; Yeah you know me!

If you see that a therapy modality is “evidence-based,” it means that multiple studies have shown that; when effectively applied, the given therapy has driven a positive outcome (e.g. changes in mood, a reduction in the abuse of a substance, etc). Until recently, the majority of the measurement of this efficacy relied on observed or reported changes in mood and behavior. Now that brain imaging is getting better, we can actually start to see how therapy is changing the brain.

EFT (Emotionally Focused Therapy):

Sue Johnson (who is an absolute boss in the couples therapy world) developed EFT based on years of clinical experimentation, observation and optimization. Add an extra “F” to make it Emotionally Focused Family Therapy and you can apply it to families, too. While we have seen how EFT has helped couples through observation for years; more recently, FMRI (Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) technology has shown that EFT can indeed help to rewire the interpersonal neurobiology that gets triggered when we form deep relationships. Pretty cool, huh? So, how does it work?

Well, as I’ve said before, we are wired to seek deep, trusting, interpersonal bonds with a close-knit group of family and friends. As social primates, our very survival depends on successfully integrating into our tribe. We lean on our parents (primary attachment figures) to learn how we must behave to get others to love us and care for us. Later in life, when we couple up, we tend to use what we’ve learned from those early relationships to relate to our partner. If the way we learned to relate to others is incompatible with the way our partners learned to connect in their family of origin, emotionally infused conflicts tend to arise. What’s more; if our primary attachment relationships involve trauma (like neglect, lack of attunement or abuse); the resulting fear and hurt may bubble up when we interact with our partner. Because our survival response (fight, fight and freeze) is literally wired in to our social engagement system, we often become reactive, angry, sad or disconnected when triggered by an adult partner, even if they are not the original source of the trauma or hurt.

Sue Johnson frames the interactional patterns that exist between a couple as “the dance.” If the current dance contains missteps that are driving the couple apart, EFT therapists aim to identify the unhealthy aspects of the current dance and frame them as the shared enemy of the couple’s ability to connect with each other. To change the steps of the dance to make them better, the couple must identify the unmet need to that is inspiring each misstep before working together to re-choreograph the dance to get that need met in a healthier way.

PSYCHODYNAMIC THERAPY:

Psychodynamic therapists help clients to explore how their early-life experiences may have led to the consequent emotions and beliefs that govern their lives. Once the client understands how they have come to feel, think and behave in ways that are causing them distress, they are then empowered to change those patterns in a way that will help them reach their goals.

In my opinion; psychodynamic work is an important component of the work with each client, but it isn’t a complete solution in-and-of-itself. I say this because I know plenty of people who come to understand why they are distressed, but experience little-to-no relief from their symptoms. Here’s why. While knowing engages our neocortex, it does little to influence or limbic system and our reptilian brain. Changing requires a rewiring of the triune brain, which is precisely what the most effective therapeutic modalities can accomplish if the right practitioner is there to guide the client through the work.

SAFETY:

Anyone who dismisses the fact that we can feel unsafe without being in a hurricane, a war zone or a pit of alligators simply doesn’t understand how the brain’s threat system works. You see, the majority of the default circuitry in our reptilian brain sounds an alert when another human enters our space. Why? Because the biggest threat to an alligator for the first 18-months of life is another alligator. Since many of us have to work together, early mammals developed a direct line from our threat system to our social engagement system. This extra circuitry keeps our threat system online for humans who are not in our tribe, for alligators, heights, and fires; however, it overrides our danger alert system when we are in the company of family members and members of our tribe.

Just a few thousand years ago (e.g. a hot minute in evolutionary terms) we used to sing with, dance alongside and share stories with “other” humans to bond us and make us feel safe in their presence. Not anymore. In today’s world, on a daily basis, we walk past, drive alongside, work with and work for people we’ve never met before or will see again. Thus, we are frequently feeling not-so-safe in the presence of others. If we’ve experienced trauma, our fight, flight and freeze response can be triggered far quicker than those who haven’t been traumatized, as our brain is great at machine learning and will adapt to monitor for threat in the future if it has been threatened in the past. Thus, creating safety means putting the brain in an environment where it does not become so triggered that it pushes the neocortex offline and simply executes the survival response it has learned until the threat passes. For many of us, that means retreating to a place where people look like us, sound like us and reflect our worldview.

SOMATIC THERAPY:

Descartes really set us back with this concept of a mind-body divide. While we are one, complete system; in Western societies especially, we’ve done a lot to encourage people to disconnect from the sensations and wisdom of their body; and thus, from themselves. Somatic interventions focus on using physical tools like breath and touch to create safety, relieve stress, gain insight and feel better. This isn’t hippie B.S. In fact, the field is championed by a bunch of medics and biological anthropologists who have come to understand how our oldest brain (the reptilian brain) works with our mammalian brain (e.g. the social brain) and neocortex (e.g. the rational brain) to execute the sympathetic (upregulate) and parasympathetic (downregulate) systems that make us feel horrible or pretty darn good. As fancy primates, human beings can get these systems revved up based on social traumas or painful memories (whether implicit or explicit). As such, somatic work is very important when healing trauma, as the fight, flight and freeze systems go from 0-to-Overwhelm in trauma survivors very quickly. Thus, it is imperative to give people the somatic tools to help them feel safe as they process their trauma.

Somatic work is not just for the traumatized. There is so much we can do to reset, nurture and improve the integration of our many parts, both inside and outside of therapy. When you dig into Yoga, for example, you see a lot of empirically validated tools to improve wellbeing. Just opening up a yoga session with an “Ooommmmmmmmm” of the right frequency will reset the balance between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system. Turns out, if we’ve been doing it for thousands of years, it probably helps. So, next time someone tells you that something is “psychosomatic,” give them a quizzical look and say: “Isn’t everything?”

TRANSFERENCE/COUNTERTRANSFERENCE:

Transference and countertransference hail back to Freud. While he got a lot wrong (like assuming that everyone wanted to replace their same-sex parent and marry their opposite-sex parent); Freud’s observation that there was a lot going on outside of our conscious mind was genius, as was the hypothesis that early experiences play a big role in shaping who we become.

Transference refers to a client transferring a feeling they have toward a significant person in their life (past or present) on to the therapist. Countertransference refers to the therapist’s reaction to the client’s behavior. We now know that there are two pathways from the limbic brain to the neocortex (e.g. the rational brain), when something is personal, and a completely different pathway when it isn’t. To provide an example: An economist may build a well researched and rational model to predict what investments will pay off in the next, 18-months, but refuse to act on their own research when it is time to put their money on the line.

TRAUMA-INFORMED:

People who have witnessed domestic violence, experienced physical, emotional, and/or sexual abuse, suffered neglect, experienced war or survived a disaster are often traumatized. Because we are wired to survive as members of a social group, our defensive brain (which contains the famous fight, flight or freeze response) has developed a direct pipeline to the interpersonal neurobiology that comprises our social engagement system. Consequently, how we are treated (and how those around us are treated) can trigger a 300 million-year-old system of survival that causes a zebra to run from a lion or a possum to play dead when faced by a predator.

Because we are wired to make it work with our caretakers and we are deeply motivated to protect our tribe, the emotions tied to the memories of trauma are often so strong that our newest, rational brain becomes overwhelmed when they are triggered, rendering it incapable of placing these memories in an explicit and cohesive narrative of our personal experience — hence trauma-related memories being so foggy and disorganized. Thanks to both observation and an increasingly detailed understanding of how the triune brain reacts to complex trauma (e.g. sustained childhood abuse) or single episode trauma (e.g. a car accident as an adult); we now understand that we must slowly titrate a client’s exposure to trauma memories in order to process them. The wonderful trauma healer Babette Rothschild concocted the perfect analogy for trauma processing: It is like opening a coke bottle that has been shaken up after a long car ride. You don’t just wrench the cap off, you slowly loosen it, release a bit of pressure; wait, loosen a little more; wait and then loosen a little more.

If you’ve come across a term that you’d like me to write about, or you are confused/intrigued by something I haven’t covered here, please leave me a comment and I’ll do my best to add it into this post.

© Galyn Burke, 2018







The arts are not a luxury

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In the beginning, there was creativity

Thanks to a series of brain mutations; about 70,000 years ago, homo sapiens gained the capacity for creative thought. Humans (and other primates, for that matter) had long commanded the capacity to communicate about literal matters, like ‘There is a falcon hunting mice in the meadow.’ Armed with this newfound ability to generate and share creative ideas, our ancestors began to also share creative ideas, like: ‘I believe that the falcon spirit protects our tribe.’ While a creative imagination doesn’t seem like a very impressive, evolutionary differentiator, it supercharged two of our most important biological adaptations as social primates: collaboration and innovation. Together, these two, subtle shifts changed everything.

Creativity and collaboration

For hundreds of thousands of years, humans had lived in conjoined, extended family groups of about 60 individuals, bonded to each other based on shared survival needs. Once capable of creative thought, we began to work together based on shared ideas, like: ‘The falcon spirit protects our tribe.’ While all other primate species remained confined to conjoined family groups of under 100, homo sapiens began to organize by the thousands. Bonded by shared ideas, no other human species could compete with homo sapien tribes of far, greater numbers. In short order, we drove all of our nearest cousins to extinction, while exploring, colonizing and dominating the globe (1).

Ancient Egyptian falcon hieroglyph

Ancient Egyptian falcon hieroglyph

Creativity and innovation

Collaboration at scale has many benefits, just ask a colony of ants. Add creativity to that collaboration and things really get interesting. In addition to scaling our ability to collaborate, creative thinking simultaneously empowered us to identify unique problems and tackle them with creative solutions. For example, without creative thinking, not being able to fly would never be a problem. Without creative innovation, two bicycle mechanics with a sketchpad and a healthy tolerance for dangerous experimentation never would have solved that problem.

Early Wright brothers concept sketch of a steerable flying machine.

Early Wright brothers concept sketch of a steerable flying machine.

For the past 70 millenia, we have been working together to combine our creative capacities in the pursuit, production and distribution of technologies that keep us warm, dry and safe, eradicate disease, take us to the far reaches of our planet (and beyond); and, keep us entertained. Today, we live in social structures where millions (and even billions) of people collaborate within the shared idea of a business, a country or a religion. These businesses, countries and religious organizations exchange goods, compete and collaborate via the global economy, a creative idea made possible by technologies that allow us to send virtual representations of the value that we’ve assigned to a good, a service, a brand, a plot of land, or anything else that we’ve decided can be bought or sold.

Creativity helps us grow

Because of its profound impact on our species and the planet, it is easy to forget that creativity is a biological adaptation. Like sonar to a bat, spines to a cactus or claws to a bear; creativity is core to our survival. Just like a little bear needs to practice climbing and swimming to build the skills necessary to succeed as an adult bear, children need to create, experiment and explore in order to become healthy, integrated adults.

Mama watches cub practice climbing skills in Grand Teton National Park. Gary Pollock Photoraphy

Mama watches cub practice climbing skills in Grand Teton National Park. Gary Pollock Photoraphy

Myriad studies support the assertion that practicing the creative arts is essential to human development and health. For example, engaging in art enhances our ability to achieve focus and flow, reduces anxiety and increases positive emotions, helps us solve problems more creatively, encourages self awareness; and, regulates our emotions (2). Because the arts helps us solve problems while keeping us calm and focused, it is no wonder that children who engage in art programs experience less anxiety and depression and do better in school (3).

Children drawing together at the Beacon Center

Children drawing together at the Beacon Center

Creativity keeps us healthy

While the arts are especially important to aid in the integration of the developing brain, creative expression is fundamental to adult health as well. For example, adults who have an art practice boast healthier immune systems (4); and, older adults who practice art enjoy a slower rate of cognitive decline than their non-creative counterparts (5). Just like your body needs exercise to stay fit, your brain needs the stimulating and integrating practice of creative expression to stay healthy.

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Creativity can help us heal

Creative expression is not only a powerful way to maintain health, it also acts as a powerful healing tool for both physical and emotional illness. Art therapy is particularly effective in healing trauma (6). For cancer patients, art therapy can reduce pain, anxiety and depression during treatment and through recovery (7). For Parkinson’s sufferers, dance is one of the most effective ways to combat the physical decline and emotional distress associated with this devastating disease.

Creativity brings us together

In addition to its personal health benefits, sharing and practicing art strengthens interpersonal communication and facilitates social bonding (8). For example, when people sing, their brains release endorphins and oxytocin to promote social bonding, while the shared, musical vibrations cause their bodies to move in sync while their heartbeats synchronize (9). On a social scale, an international study reveals that participation in the arts strengthens and diversifies a person's social networks.

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The arts are fundamental to a healthy society

For all of its benefits on personal and interpersonal health, it is not surprising that a recent, meta analysis of the impact of arts programs on community strength revealed that the arts make communities stronger, more prosperous, happier and healthier. From reducing crime to boosting school performance, to stimulating economic growth and facilitating social cohesion, trust and happiness; creative expression brings people together to collaborate in ways that help the community (10). Perhaps that is why human tribes have sung together and danced together for thousands of years to promote social cohesion and integration.

The arts are not a luxury

The data are clear: Creative expression is essential to personal health, interpersonal bonding and social health. In fact, social cohesion and strong interpersonal relationships are the two most important factors in human health and longevity (4, 5) Thus, as our communities continue to grow (and grow apart); we need the healing and bonding power of art more than ever. The arts are not a luxury, they are an essential component in the glue that brings us together to collaborate, innovate and grow as a community.

Bringing it home

San Francisco is a shining example of how creative collaboration can drive breathtaking technological innovation. Unfortunately, artists are leaving the city in droves due to affordability issues. The technology workers who can afford to live here have little time to meet, collaborate with and enjoy the artistic scene that remains in the city. This famine of creative expression is impacting our children as well, most of whom do not have adequate access to arts education in school. This is particularly distressing, considering how important creative expression is in fomenting growth and integration in the developing brain. As members of this community, it is up to us to find creative ways to bring the arts back to our community to heal ourselves, to connect with each other and to help our community thrive.

The focus and flow of an art practice provides emotional relief from anxiety and depression, without the threat of addiction.

The focus and flow of an art practice provides emotional relief from anxiety and depression, without the threat of addiction.

Getting involved

With a firm understanding of the personal, interpersonal and social benefits of art, Code and Canvas is working hard to: 1. Keep artists in the community, to restore the necessary balance between technology and art; 2. Deliver art to the community; with a focus on works that foster growth, healing and connection; and, 3. Provide healing arts services on site, including individual & family therapy, healing arts workshops and therapeutic arts events. Recognizing that Code and Canvas is itself a social system, we are simultaneously working hard to raise the funds necessary to provide these services to those who need them most, not just those who have the means to afford them. If you are as passionate as we are about healing our community through art and would like to get involved, don’t hesitate to reach out to hello@codeandcanvas.org. If you would like to support us in our efforts, a donation of any amount is greatly appreciated.

© Galyn Burke, 2018