In-Person Social Connectedness Matters – It Impacts Brain Health

Our last blog post discussed the difference between interruption and disruption. I noted that as we consider the various worldview shifts that are occurring, there can be underlying factors that make a shift more likely. In the case of a shift to increased work at home I noted that operational cost savings, like office space rent, is one underlying factor here. However, I also noted that the mental health and physical well-being of employees must also be considered as a cost factor. Human beings are social beings and there are health and wellness benefits from in-person proximity.

Thinking about brain and mental well-being in the coming years, one factor will be meeting our relational needs. How do our relationships affect brain and mental health?

A key part of our brain that is directly impacted by social and relational contact with other people is the prefrontal cortex. Several activities can help build, support and maintain a healthy prefrontal cortex, like learning something new, travel to new places, brain teasers, meditation and social contact with others.

Why is a healthy prefrontal cortex important? The frontal lobe is the part of the brain that controls important cognitive skills in humans, such as emotional expression, problem solving, memory, language, and judgment. It not only helps with good judgment, but it also inhibits inappropriate behavior.

For those who have participated in a Worldview Intelligence program, you will recall that we explore the relationship between worldviews, amygdala hijacks and perceived threats. We also wrote about it in Building Trust and Relationship at the Speed of Change. The role of the amygdala is to warn us of a possible threat. The role of the prefrontal cortex is to analyze whether the threat is real and to what extent. The neural pathway between the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala is critical. If the prefrontal cortex isn’t healthy, judgment capacities will be diminished.

It is then critically important that we do all we can to support a healthy prefrontal cortex. As noted above, one way to do that is through social and relational interactions with others. This happens at work, in social or public settings and with family and friends. The healthier our prefrontal cortex, the better we are at creating and nourishing thriving relationships, at feeling empathy and joy and fostering intimacy. We are also more patient, better at problem-solving and better at working together cooperatively.

A key question is, will more or sustained working at home for people who, prior to the pandemic, have been working in office spaces impact their relational and social experiences? A review of various articles and opinion pieces indicates the verdict is still out. It seems to me that we need to be in careful territory here. As a society, as businesses, and as educators we are beginning to make choices that could have significant consequences in the future.

Short-term employee efficiencies and cost savings could result in the longer-term in decreased problem-solving and judgment skills. It could lead to poorer relationships or an inability to establish relationships. We could have less ability to manage amygdala hijacks.

I am intrigued by the possibility of quantifying our relational needs in some way. Professional relational needs describe how much time we spend interacting with those we work with regularly, presumably in collocated spaces. Social relational needs are when we are in some form of physical space with others, like browsing in the bookstore or visiting a museum or art gallery or attending some event. Personal relational needs refers to our time with family or close friends.

If we say that we have professional, social and personal relational needs, then how much ‘time’ should be devoted to each so that these needs are met? How much of each of these relational spaces and interactions will we need to support our brain and mental health? Could a decrease in one be balanced by an increase in another one? This could influence how much time we work from home or how often we go to public spaces or have time with family. I would offer that we may want to be better informed of consequences before we leap too far.