Disconnected: The Paradox in our Adaptive Emotional Ability

Welcome to 2020. Where humans are more connected than ever. We have smartphones that fit in the palm of our hands. Their power surpassing supercomputers from just decades ago. They allow us the opportunity to connect with billions of others daily. Video call technology facilitates connections to relatives living abroad. Social media connecting us to everyone near and far alike. On the internet, there’s a place for everyone. From those interested in knitting to basketball to rationalism and even 13 tentacle half octopus half female VR porn lovers1. There’s a niche for everything and anything you can imagine. Not only that but our cities are filled with millions of people. Daily we encounter new faces we’ve never seen before. We should be connected more than ever it seems. But, that’s not the case. 

There’s an interesting metric that relates the size of the neocortex to the number of social connections a species can maintain. For humans, it’s roughly 150. From an evolutionary perspective, this number intuitively makes sense. The bigger a tribe the harder it is to care for everyone. Moreover, as more people are added the less likely you are to run into them. If one doesn’t interact with another person frequently enough, a relationship can’t develop. Which in turn promotes apathy towards the other person. But, in a small tribe of about 150 people, you will encounter everyone frequently enough to establish a relationship. Not only with that person, but with their families and mutuals as well. It’s much harder to be apathetic to those in close proximity to you. Especially since you’re working towards the same goal of group survival. In a small tribe of 150 everyone has a visible role. 

Intuitively it makes sense the more connected you are to others to closer you should feel. Yet, that doesn’t seem to be the case. There’s a study that was conducted to see how people would respond to donating money to those in need. Initially, they asked subjects to donate to a single poor child in need. The subjects were highly likely to donate. Next, they asked subjects to donate to a family in need. They were a little less likely to donate relative to just one poor girl. Lastly, they asked subjects to donate to an entire village. In this case, the subjects were the least likely to donate2. Now having Dunbar’s number in mind, we can see why this phenomenon occurs.

Our brains are just not built to handle so many people. We can empathize with a single person and even a few people. But, as more people are added our empathy is diluted. People become just another number. Whereas in small tribes, there are no strangers to you. There is person a, b, c, d, etc. with families a1, b1, c1, d1, etc. and so on. You may know there brother, mother, or aunt, who knows someone else’s sister or father. Who also know you as person x with family x1. There is a distinct interconnection throughout the entirety of the group. It’s easy to see how someone in that situation would feel so connected to those around them.

In our modern times, we have countless ways of connecting with others. Yet, we seem to be more disconnected than ever. Is there any way to get past our evolutionary wiring? Maybe there is hope. This pandemic we are living through gave me a sense of connection to the world. This sensation was brought on when a friend mentioned how crazy it is that the whole world is impacted by Covid. I viscerally felt the connection to the world for a minute.

But, does it really have to take a pandemic to do so? After it’s all over we will quickly forget. That’s the human condition, unfortunately. But, fortunately as well. Our ability to adapt emotionally to once novel situations is paradoxically both fortunate and unfortunate. In the case of even the most extremely unfavourable circumstances, like the holocaust, our mind acclimates to the new environment. No matter how horrid it might be, as outlined by Victor Frankl in his book ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’. He discusses his experience in concentration camps. Where the prisoners would have a piece of bread a day. They’d wear torn shoes in the freezing cold and if their shoes got damaged they’d take them from the dead surrounding them. The mind so powerfully gets used to novelty that the prisoners were even numb to the death around them. At times even managing to find humour in the situation. That is the power of the mind.

Inversely, we get accustomed to circumstances that were once very enjoyable. Like the honeymoon phase with a new lover, or a new material item. At first great joy is extracted from the novelty, but as we are both blessed and cursed with emotional adaptation, the joy diminishes over time. Thus, the paradox of our adaptive emotional capacity to our situations. 

Our capacity to emotionally adapt to novelty is why it’s hard to sustain the feelings of connection we have to others in this global pandemic. It takes effort to do so. Most people don’t feel obligated to put in that effort. Even on a smaller scale. Like the gratuity we should feel for the small things in life. Although that should be an important skill to have. So, that we may curb feelings of monotony with the sameness of our day to day lives.

Will we have to wait till aliens invade to reconnect globally as one species? It seems highly likely to me. People will quickly forget the pandemic once we finally leave it behind. And the small collective connection of our consciousness we had, will diminish as the weeks pass3. I hope we can try to keep in mind that for a fraction of time we all were deeply connected.

Footnotes:

  1. Don’t ask me how I know
  2. I’m not sure if I got the exact details of the study correct but the idea is the same.
  3. Unless you’re from New Zealand, then I hope the aliens get you.

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