The dorsal anterior cingulate cortex is a region of the brain, behind the eyes and near the top of the spinal cord, that plays an extremely important role in how human beings function and behave. Although work is still continuing – the brain is a complex and powerful organ after all – many neuroscientists believe that it is this region (in combination with other regions), that amongst other things processes physical pain. It also processes hunger, thirst, breathlessness and social rejection, an interesting mixture of functions.
Pain, as we know, is painful, but the ability to feel it is essential if we are to function. It is therefore instructive: we know not to put our hand in boiling water because apart from causing the skin and flesh some serious damage, it’s going to hurt like hell. This will make sure we don’t do it. Imagine if we did not feel pain – we would cause ourselves irreparable damage without knowing it, and there are documented cases where people who have damaged this area of the brain have had to be restrained and watched over continually in their daily lives so that they don’t cause themselves, or others, harm due to their lack of feeling.
It is natural therefore that hunger, thirst and breathlessness are also picked up in this area of the brain. We need food, water and oxygen to survive, and a lack of any of these elements will cause us harm. So in order to make these signals stop beeping in our brains we take action to alleviate them. This is called staying alive.
But what about social rejection? Why does this ring alarm bells in the same place? Why does someone ignoring us at a party, or being turned down by a prospective romantic partner hurt – literally – so much? This is a part of human survival too, and the fact that we have evolved this way shows how much human beings have needed each other to stay alive.
This seems straightforward enough. Young humans cannot survive without parents and other carers until a relatively old age, about seven or eight years old, not only to be fed, but also to be taught how to survive, and communicate with the rest of their world. Learning to talk, understand what others are saying and doing, and to follow the right way (and avoid the wrong way) are good ways to make sure you keep on living. The human experience is a social one, from a very early age, and as Aristotelis said, man is a political animal. To survive, one has to either communicate with others in a comprehending and interactive way, or be cared for by those that can at the early and later stages of life, or for those unfortunate enough to be disabled, physically or mentally, all the way through. Humans – surprisingly enough – are therefore disposed to caring for each other, however much it doesn’t feel like that sometimes. The fact that the world seems such a horrible and uncaring place to many of us suggests to me that there’s nothing wrong with our mental health, but the world has been organised into a less than ideal place by those who have different, let’s say more antisocial, motives.
This should be obvious to us. Turn on a pop radio station, in Greece at least – but elsewhere I suspect too – between ten o’clock in the evening and two in the morning and you will hear songs with lyrics containing words like “hurt”, “pain”, “feelings”, “suffering”, “heartbreak” as well as the anger driving people to sing “I will survive.” It is all about survival, in the most obvious sense. This is how we feel. We are hard-wired to think this way. It is necessary to our survival as a species.
We need to belong, and feel that we belong. We don’t like being excluded. Do you remember being excluded from games in the playground at school, or worse, being rejected by friends, or ex-friends? Children can be very nasty with each other, but they instinctively know the cruelty excluding someone will cause, and the joy inclusion will bring. These are powerful emotional forces. Criminal gangs ensure loyalty by it, and political parties thrive on it. Solitary confinement is a particularly cruel form of punishment, and in some cases can lead to madness. Those that are able to survive it are special, as in ‘not normal’. Normal human beings suffer from exclusion.
In the age of social media of course, no one should be lonely. The world is connected! I do not think that human relationships are better because of social media, in fact I think that they have deteriorated. The social media world is a polarising place where we lose our communication skills, and become dysfunctional human beings, relying on the ‘likes’ of others, many of whom we hardly know – if at all – to confirm our place in an artificial world. Our online lives have become packaged, processed, commoditised and monetised. Rather than pick up the phone, or walk up to someone, and say “hi”, we pour out all our (edited and controlled) emotions and thoughts to someone we barely know in text form, and worse, think that this is interaction. No, this is slow burn isolation, where we cannot appreciate others, and others can never know who we really are, and therefore how we really feel. In the very act of being encouraged to interact, we are excluding ourselves further. As any parent of teenagers may already know, life lived through social media can be an extremely distressing place.
And of course COVID has added to our isolation and exclusion. Life cannot be experienced how we would wish. How many arguments have been started because of the need to self-isolate, to protect others, and to protect ourselves? Insisting others do not interact with the outside world is seen as cruel and heartless, because the alternative, the world at general in crisis, is something that we cannot feel as being dangerous, it requires our rational mind to understand the threat, rather than our instinctive mind to feel it. And yet those that insist on protecting others, a lot of the time from themselves, are excluded themselves for being cruel and heartless.
In our offices, we all know how it feels to be excluded from time to time. The boss is cross with us, our colleagues don’t like us, our clients don’t talk to us, or worse prefer to talk to someone else. We think it is our fault and feel bad about it, sometimes irrationally so.
Imagine being on board a ship, in these COVID times, not knowing when you will next be off it, and worse being amongst a group of people where you don’t really fit in, or under a captain and officers who have troubles of their own, and do little to foster group morale. Feels horrible doesn’t it? Imagine being in an office where exclusion is used as a management tool, where your whole existence is geared towards doing things that will make you feel accepted, rather than doing what you know is right, and more, what is more productive, and feeling as though you are not listened to. Feels stupid, self-defeating and depressing doesn’t it? And imagine being in a place where your only interaction with human beings is at a superficial level, and no-one cares for you as a human being? Feels terrible doesn’t it?
Christmas is a time, we are told, of peace on earth and goodwill to all men and women. This does not mean (just) parties and feasts, and present giving and receiving, but also of families and friends connecting and reconnecting, of a general sharing of good things and good times amongst all. At a time when the world feels more and more dysfunctional, where the threats of a splintered globe seem ever more apparent, where exclusion and isolation seem to be hard wired into how we are meant to live, let us give the poor dorsal anterior cingulate cortex a break. All of us, whether in our professional or personal lives, whether we are in positions of power, influence and authority, or whether we are just trying to work our way through these difficult times in order to survive, have a part to play.
We can avoid causing unnecessary pain to others, as I think most of us strive to. But we can also think of others: our colleagues, our employees, our customers and our service providers, our families, our friends and the people around us, and think whether they feel included in our lives, in where we are going and what we are trying to do. It seems simple, but it can be very difficult because it means coming out of our isolation, out of our comfort zones, and into an area where we may feel challenged and under threat. But inclusion, I think, is what being a human being is really about. We have it in our gift to not only be kind, but to let other people know that we know that they exist, and that they are important to us. How we do that is up to us of course, but it is probably the best and most honest gift that we can give each other, because not only is it hard-wired into us, it is part of who we are. And with a bit of luck it could also bring us – for a short while at least – peace on earth, and goodwill to all men and women.