Continuing the topic of brain training, I’ll look today at the effect of one’s social network on brain health. A number of very good studies have looked at this recently. One very interesting study in 2011 looked specifically at the amygdala, a structure in the brain which plays a major role in emotions. It found that the size of the amygdala correlates closely with the size and complexity of one’s social network. Another recent study compared having a group discussion with watching TV for the same period of time and found significant improvement in working memory and speed of processing for the discussion group.
Why would this be? Why is social engagement such a powerful brain stimulant? Many reasons are readily apparent but there are some, I suspect that we have not yet determined. For example, there is likely a hormonal effect of positive social interaction, which stimulates the brain, similar to the production of oxytocin in a nursing mother. We have long known that friendly social engagement is beneficial to the cardiovascular system and anything which benefits the cardiovascular system benefits the brain. Also those who are well integrated socially have been shown to regulate stress better. Stress hormones like cortisol are damaging to the brain in excess and therefore stress management is imperative. We can speculate about many other reasons: Social interaction provides an endless stream of novelty especially when engaging in serious dialogue or meeting new folks. Our brains are very active in such interactions trying to discern other’s thoughts and intents, considering appropriate responses, utilizing working memory to stay engaged and emotionally regulating ourselves. This provides a constant stimulation of executive functions. Finally involvement in a community of likeminded others is essential in forming a sense of purpose which brings meaning to life and allows us to exercise love.
Families provide the most basic and essential social unit. We have long understood the importance of a regular family meal in overall wellness. Shared meal times have been shown in numerous studies to lead to greater academic achievement and improved psychological well-being in children. Surely a large part of this is related to the social interaction around the table. In addition, these family meals result in the consumption of healthier food and healthier body weight both of which lead to a healthier brain. In working with families, we frequently encourage regular shared meals and the effect on brain health adds weight to that recommendation.
In last week’s post, I encouraged the cultivation of passion in our hobbies or activities because passionate engagement leads to the greatest brain stimulation possible. When we are passionately engaged in an activity it is very natural to meet and develop close relationships with others who share the passion. I witnessed a very interesting example of this several years ago. My wife and I took an anniversary trip to a wonderful mountain inn which was hosting a weekend devoted to ballroom dancing. Dance lessons were offered along with other activities and the weekend culminated in a Saturday night dance. We met a number of couples who were extremely skilled and agile on the dance floor and worked together beautifully. Quite a few of them were in their 60’s and even 70’s. Standing around talking between dances it became apparent that many were already acquainted. We learned that they all shared a passion for dancing and would meet up at venues all over the southeast for similar events. This delightful group of people was staying young mentally and physically by pursuing a passion which provided endless fun, intimacy in their marriage and a vibrant social network!
I would be remiss to leave out what for me is the ultimate social network – the church. Gathering with the local church for worship and fellowship, leads to renewal of my mind along with many other benefits. The Apostle Paul, in writing to the Ephesian churches, urges them to act in a manner worthy of their calling, with humility, gentleness and patience, bearing with one another in love. He commends the unity given by God and urges them to maintain it. He speaks of how they are each gifted in special ways which could help build up this community which functions as “the body of Christ.” He discusses overcoming the vulnerability of immaturity and concludes his initial thoughts with these beautiful words: “Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body…..when each part is working properly….builds itself up in love.” I’m deeply passionate about maintaining wellness of the body as a form of stewardship. I want my brain to function as well as possible for as long as possible until my work on this earth is complete. But much more than that I desire to have a renewed mind which will function for eternity in God’s kingdom and cannot think of a better place to hone that than the church of Jesus Christ!