Your Brain and Body Need To Be Connected To Something Much Larger To Survive
Why the materialist biological approach to treatment needs to spread its wings
On the surface, the brain and body appear to be quite self-contained. Powered by sleep and food, materialist biology teaches us that there is nothing beyond our literal existence on earth, and that we are solely in charge of this physical complexity, all of which can be accounted for by the tremendous interactive capabilities within and between our organs. Eat well. Sleep well. Get some fresh air. Exercise. And that’s supposed to be a formula for smooth sailing through life. But something is missing in this formulation, and I’d like to explore that with you.
If we are so self-contained, why do bodies behave like unplugged devices when they are in social isolation? Why does loneliness unhinge our immune systems? Why do our brains degenerate without a sense of purpose? Physical, environmental and existential connection appear to be essential for normal physiological functioning.
Solitary confinement unplugs the body from life: When people are in solitary confinement, they become depressed, inattentive, amnesic, and suicidal. When you’re removed from social interaction, this is what you can expect—extreme psychological distress. The human brain is wired for social thinking. When you don’t use this capacity, you lose it.
When political theorist Alexis de Tocqueville observed people isolated in dark cells in Pennsylvania’s Eastern Penitentiary, de Tocqueville remarked, “This absolute solitude, if nothing interrupts it, is beyond the strength of man; it destroys the criminal without intermission and without pity; it does not reform, it kills.”
These impacts extend to the body as well. Findings in animals show reduced anatomical complexity in the brain, and in humans, antarctic expeditioners have been shown to have smaller memory processors (hippocampi) that are due to isolated and monotonous environments.
When people are in solitary confinement, they are held in a prison cell roughly the size of a parking space for ~ 22–23 h per day with 1 or 2 h of exercise. Individuals in solitary confinement experience an absolute 31% higher hypertension prevalence than those in maximum security units. And when people who have been in solitary confinement leave prison, they are 24% more likely to die in their first year after release than former prisoners who had not spent time in solitary confinement.
Without social connection, the mind and body perish. But the reasons for this are probably more than exercise, sunshine, air and food.
Loneliness unplugs the body from life too: In younger adults, loneliness has been associated with poor sleep habits, increased risk of depression and suicides, and a greater risk of cardiovascular disorders too. In fact, one study of more than 11,000 people showed that people get sicker and die more frequently if they are lonely on top of having heart disease. Other studies have demonstrated that lonely human subjects exhibited slow recovery from exaggerated blood pressure and pulse rate responses to perceived stress in addition to significant left ventricular hypertrophy, autonomic imbalance, increased systemic inflammation, and the rapid calcification of coronary arteries.
And in the elderly, loneliness is a predictor and marker of pathological brain changes too.
Other organs systems also become deranged or shut down when people feel socially isolated. And the endocrine system and immune system are not spared.
Many studies have demonstrated that normal stress responses also shut down when people feel lonely. At a genetic level, there is a a reduction in gene expression for genes which modulate glucocorticoid production and response. This means that there are fewer genes that protect your body from stress. In fact, when you look at the finer details, you see that the disruption of the social bond and not just isolation itself plays a key role in this abnormal physiology.
Sense of purpose supports human psychology and the body: Aside from literal connections being disrupted in solitary confinement and social isolation, it looks like people also need to be connected to a purpose in life that transcends what is in front of their noses.
For instance, when people have Alzheimer’s disease, their brains are changed by deposits of plaques and tangles. This worsens their cognition. However, when these people are socially isolated, it makes things worse. People who report higher levels of purpose in life (PIL) exhibit better cognitive function despite the burden of the disease. When you have a PIL, the impact of tangles is less. And you lose your cognitive capacities at a slower rate too. In fact, PIL protects against Alzheimer’s disease. A person with a high score on the PIL measure is approximately 2.4 times more likely to remain free of AD than was a person with a low score.
PIL also impacts other body systems. One study found that PIL reduced the risk of death as a result of all causes, stroke, and CVD, especially for men. And a much larger meta-analysis showed that this protective effect extended to women as well. Ten prospective studies with a total of 136,265 participants indicated that PIL is associated with reduced all-cause mortality and cardiovascular events too. It’s not just psychologically protective. Being connected to something greater impacts biological pathways as well.
Your brain and body need to be plugged into something greater than individual life habits to survive and thrive: While there are several potential interpretations of this data, I favor the one that sees this need for social connection, social bonding, and a sense of purpose, as indicating that on their own, brains and bodies cannot function well. They have to be plugged into being around other people, a feeling of social connection, and a higher purpose.
This, I believe, is just surface evidence that the separateness of our bodies is misleading about who we truly are. Medical interventions that target the individual are missing out on the entirety of what we need. While there is much benefit to tweaking cognition, receptors, and chemistry, what if what we actually had to tweak had to do with what lies between us and some “greater” whole? If we changed our bodies to tap into this larger “whole”, perhaps we could at least in part, dissolve the limits of materialist medicine.
Of course, being socially connected, having close social ties, and having a sense of purpose all seem to be protective. But I am implying much more. I am implying that the human “organism” is a connected species, and that treating the “connection” is a vital piece of restoring both human physiology and the actual human condition, which from the evidence I have reviewed above, appears to transcend the individual body, brain and mind.