Soon we will celebrate my son’s first birthday. It has been a year of sleepless nights and frustrations, but also a year of many special moments, including a smile meant for me that I will never forget. I had no idea how much time, literally face-to-face, I would end up spending with my son, and how that would change me, psychologically and physically. When he was born, Susan Pinker, author of The Village Effect, sent me an excerpt from her book that she hoped would motivate me as a new father. The passage was on how face-to-face contact is critical to the formation of the brain circuitry of a developing baby, and that the “give-and-take of face-to-face interaction in infancy affects how a child’s genetic programming will play out.” Little did I know that this contact would not only alter the brain circuitry of my son, but perhaps also my own:
“Without close proximity to his infant, a father’s brain cells may take a hit, according to the work of two neuroscientists, Gloria Mak and Samuel Weiss. Though they work with mice, not humans, they’ve discovered that for any neural changes to take place in the fathers’ brains, they have to be in close physical proximity to their offspring; simply seeing their babies isn’t enough. When the neuroscientists allowed the dads to nuzzle their pups, the fathers’ brains formed new networks. But when the new fathers could only sniff them through a mesh screen, nothing happened. Neurogenesis depended on real interaction.”
Yet, as any new parent will attest, social interaction with an infant is not enough. And this is why some people say it takes a village to raise a child. The village is not only for the child, but for the parents as well. For example, despite being a strong introvert who works as a researcher and writer, I learned that for my personal health I needed to participate in face-to-face social activities with other adults. Susan suggested that I consider doing something sporty, arrange to have regular meals with a group of friends or family, or take my son to classes and activities where I could meet other parents. Given that we had just moved to another state and not yet built up a community, being new parents without a network of support—a village—already in place was extremely difficult. But this highlights something that Susan suggests is important for all of us: that in an era where we think sufficient social contact is equivalent to interacting on email, Facebook, and other social media, we need to put in the effort to build a village where we have contact with real rather than virtual people. She writes: “Electronic media can sway voters and topple newspapers, but when it comes to human cognition and health, they’re no match for the face-to-face.”
In fact, The Village Effect is more broadly about the importance of face-to-face social contact from infancy through old age and in health, education, and work. In health, she suggests that an important key to the longevity puzzle may be to have a community of social support. In education, by using the powerful story of Archimedes’ insight on the displacement of water in a bathtub, she highlights how too much screen time (e.g., the smart phone or notepad) or television noise can essentially displace much needed social interaction, whether it means encouraging the language development of an infant or talking about the day at the dinner table. In work, she discusses how in an era where tasks can be done from anywhere, there are still some important benefits to face-to-face interaction, especially for cohesion among teams. And yet, she also acknowledges that your personal networks can also be a detriment to your health. If you have friends who are overweight or depressed you might be influenced in that direction. And sometimes when you have a network of associates that you trust, that trust can be turned against you, which she highlights through stories of how people were cheated out of their inheritances by someone in their village that they trusted.
Yet despite the potential negatives of being embedded in a social village, through elegant storytelling and summaries of the relevant scientific literature, I came away from the book convinced that she is definitely on to something. She agrees that we should embrace the wonderful benefits that technology has granted us—and really there is no going back—but we should also remember that as humans we need other humans, and although not absolutely necessary, having a village of support can help our minds and bodies be both productive and healthy so we can get the most out of life.
In that spirit, here are six principles she outlines in her book that we can all consider using to work on building our face-to-face villages despite our busy lives and personal preferences:
Live in a community where you know and talk to your neighbors.
Build real human contact into your workday. Save email for logistics. Use phone or face time for more nuanced interaction.
Create a village of diverse relationships. Build in social contact with members of this “village” the way you work in meals and exercise.
Everyone needs close human contact. Adjust the ratio of your face-to-face to screen communication according to your temperament, just as you adjust how much and what you eat according to your appetite.
Make parent, teacher, and peer interaction the priority for preschoolers and young children. Combine live teaching with online tools for older children and teens.
As more of our interactions migrate to digital platforms, face-to-face contact in education, medicine, and child care has become a luxury commodity. As a fundamental human need, it should remain accessible to all.