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29th July 2022 · The Clay Team

Cultivate Relationships, Cultivate Your Mind

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The key to brain health is social health; conscious connection enhances neuroplasticity.

If our body affects our minds, what effects does our mind have on our bodies? In 2012, social psychologist Amy Cuddy gave a TED Talk entitled “Your Body Language May Shape Who You Are” and it took the world by storm—but not just because of the talk’s topic. Although in recent years Cuddy’s original thesis about body language has come under debate, part of her talk still piques our collective curiosity: in the final 5 minutes, Cuddy describes suffering a severe traumatic brain injury at age 19 after being thrown from a car and finding out her “IQ had dropped by two standard deviations.” This is more than a significant amount of loss—enough to shake Cuddy’s sense of self, and by all professional perspectives bar her from success in academia.

Watching Amy Cuddy stand on the ubiquitous TED stage and tell us she didn’t know if she’d regain her cognitive abilities or finish her undergraduate degree is amazing and powerful; not only did she finish her undergraduate degree, she went on to complete her graduate degree at Princeton, conduct this research, give this TED Talk, and would end up writing the best-selling book Presence.

Choosing to return to college and complete her undergraduate degree, despite the number of people telling her it would be impossible, was the best possible choice Cuddy could have made for her recovery. But not for the reasons you may think.

Connecting With Others Builds Brain Connections

Anthropologist Robin Dunbar’s 2009 findings in “The Social Brain Hypothesis and Its Implications for Social Evolution'' suggests primates “have generalized the bonding processes that characterize monogamous pairbonds to other non-reproductive relationships” and found a “relationship between group size and brain size.” All of this is a complex way of saying the bigger your social group, the bigger your brain; your brain grows and increases in capacity with more interpersonal interactions.

To illustrate this point from another angle, damaged brains benefit from social connections. Doctors advise people who have suffered brain damage to increase neuroplasticity in order to heal and rebuild or reroute cut connections in their brains. To achieve this, patients are encouraged to socialize and form community. The serendipitous, new interactions and events provided by genuine human interaction aids brain growth, facilitating workarounds for severed neurological pathways. In fact, sufferers with higher levels of community integration during their recovery have “better self-reported physical health 2 years post-TBI,” further supporting the link between socialization and physical health.

Looking at Amy Cuddy’s recovery, this makes sense. Her insistence to return to the University of Colorado and her peer group provided her a built-in community. Continuing on to grad school helped her maintain a consistent community in the 1990s, when social media had just begun to emerge and staying connected took more effort. Her grad school experience led her to develop a close relationship with her adviser Susan Fiske, which resulted in her transferring from the University of Massachusetts Amherst to Princeton to stay in proximity to Fiske. This type of connection proved invaluable to Cuddy’s recovery—all of these relationships provided security, continuity, and serendipity. This combination of stability and chance produced an ideal environment to increase Cuddy’s neuroplasticity and healing through connection.

The Definition of Connection

In Emily Esfahani Smith’s article “Social Connection Makes a Better Brain” for The Atlantic, she delves into Dunbar’s research and then writes, “Social connections are as important to our survival and flourishing as the need for food, safety, and shelter. But over the last fifty years, while society has been growing more and more prosperous and individualistic, our social connections have been dissolving.” Again, this harkens back to the problem of technology we’ve discussed before: we’re more connected, but the quality of those connections don’t bring these benefits.

To understand why social media interactions don’t help us grow our brains and increase neuroplasticity, we need to understand what scientists refer to when they use the word “connection.” Luckily, we have a robust definition provided in Jessica Martino, Jennifer Pegg, and Elizabeth Pegg Frates’ 2015 article “The Connection Prescription: Using the Power of Social Interactions and the Deep Desire for Connectedness to Empower Health and Wellness.” It even goes a step further to provide examples of qualifying interactions (and connecting on LinkedIn doesn’t count). First, the article cites psychiatrist Dr. Edward Hallowell’s definition of connection as “feeling a part of something larger than yourself, feeling close to another person or group, feeling welcomed, and understood.” Examples of these types of interactions, emphasizing mindfulness and engagement, include:

A five-minute conversation can make all the difference in the world if the parties participate actively. To make it work, you have to set aside what you’re doing, put down the memo you were reading, disengage from your laptop, abandon your daydream and bring your attention to bear upon the person you are with. Usually, when you do this, the other person (or people) will feel the energy and respond in kind, naturally.

Coincidentally, the title of Amy Cuddy’s best-selling book is the key to quality connection: presence. Individuals need to be present or “show up” in their interpersonal interactions to reap the neurological benefits of socialization. Having presence is a tradeoff; prioritizing a conversation does monopolize your attention and time. But the overall benefits—both for you and the relationship—outweigh whatever timesaving multitask you could do. You and your relationships deserve your full attention.

It’s why simply hitting “Like” isn’t enough; the interplay and spontaneity of conversation, even if reproduced digitally and asynchronously, leads to those new neurological pathways. The rote click of a button doesn’t spark life into novel areas of your brain—areas grown to address the new social groups and interactions you’ve amassed.

But carving out the time or remembering to follow up with relationships to deepen connections may seem purely aspirational, especially since existing technology only seems to flatten our interactions and eliminate actual conversation. We wanted technology to holistically help our relationships while maintaining a balance between our other obligations. Emboldened to support our relationships more strategically, we designed a tool to honor and develop the commitment, presence, and serendipity necessary to create rewarding relationships. Clay’s design helps you genuinely connect and stay present within those connections, increasing your mental and physical health. Take care of your relationships—and yourself—with Clay.

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