Dr. Coan is a neuroscientist who specializes in measuring social cognition. His work falls under the heading of Social Baseline Theory. The critical claim of social baseline theory is that humans are inherently social creatures. Just as fish gills indicate that fish are aquatic creatures, the human mind has a suite of adaptations which indicate that we are social creatures.
For the entirety of human evolution (some 6 million years) people have always relied on other people. Social aid has been a fixture in humanity’s evolutionary environment, and our brains should reflect this.
Dr. Coan’s actual experiments are gruesomely simple. He puts people in an fMRI machine, shocks them, and watches what happens to their brain. And the variable that he manipulates is simple handholding.
It turns out that holding hands with a friend or loved one isn’t just comforting, it actually makes the pain from the shock genuinely less painful – like, the pain processing regions of the brain aren’t as active when you’re holding hands.
But the handholding effect goes even deeper. In one experiment, instead of shocking the human in the fMRI machine, instead Coan shocked their partner. And what he found was fascinating:
It turns out that the way a brain responds to the threat of being shocked is strikingly similar to the way it responds to the threat of a partner to being shocked. In other words, the brain acts as if a threat to itself, and a threat to a partner, are the same threat.
Dr. Coan has a radical explanation for this. He claims his studies indicate that the way that humans conceive of themselves is completely contingent on their relationship with others. On a deep neurological level, we often behave as if our loved ones are ourselves.
If you want to learn more, check out the paper Dr. Coan presented on: Social Baseline Theory and the Social Regulation of Emotion.
Here is the talk Dr. Coan gave, unedited.
Here are some highlights from the Q&A – a super interesting question about how the internet is shaping our social relationships.
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