The Psycho-biology of Unity

mind body

April / June 2017

By Dr. Mike Olson

Does it matter if we stand alone or with others to experience the challenges and pain that often accompany this mortal life? Research suggest the answer is “yes.” In the challenging socio-political environment we live, the importance of unity is paramount.

The Science Behind Unity

Two recent scientific studies suggest the importance of being connected to others and the difference this can make as we perceive and experience our world. The first measured an individual’s perception of the geographical slant of a hill standing alone and with a friend. In other words, if you are alone looking up the side of a mountain, how steep do you estimate it to be? How difficult will the climb be and are you capable of traversing it? The researchers found that, alone, we see the slope as steeper and the climb more difficult than when we stand together, with a friend, looking at the same incline (Schnall et al., 2012). Another fascinating study was conducted by James Coan, (2006), and his colleagues using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) (a way to image and measure real-time changes in the brain) to measure neural threat response when introduced to an electric shock. The subjects were exposed to a mild shock while alone in the fMRI machine and when holding the hand of someone they cared for and trusted. The results show “pervasive attenuation of activation in the neural systems” when holding the hand of someone they trusted. In other words, we perceive and experience less pain (actual) when with someone we care about.

Unity Does Matter

In summary, we are really built or wired to be connected and social beings. We are more capable, powerful, and resilient when we are united than when we are divided. Our brains resist change and tend to quickly consolidate and short-cut our learning and experience. While helpful in many of life’s tasks (not having to learn and relearn to drive a car every time we turn the key, for example), it keep us from taking the time to engage with new, different, or challenging ideas – including engaging people of different cultural, religious, or faith backgrounds. We must work at challenging our implicit bias and other obstacles that may keep us from reaching out, being connected and unified with those around us, in our families, in our neighborhoods and communities. Doing so will bring a social and psychological connectedness and resiliency that we all need to navigate the complex and painful sociopolitical and environmental challenges we face today.