7 billion allies
The Jungle Book Rudyard Kipling
How big is your body?
It’s a trick question of course. After all, most of us think we know how big we are. We may well think of ourselves as too big or too small in some dimension or other, but we still have a pretty good sense of the size of our physical selves.
But we’re almost certainly wrong.
You see, the body doesn’t end at the outermost layer of your skin. It extends far out into the world, connecting in profound ways to the people around us, both near and far. We cannot see this extended body directly, but we can infer its existence by observing the powerful effects that other people have on us, even when they’re remote in space and time. We are hyper-social, hyper-sensitive animals; our bodies and minds are permeable to the thoughts, ideas and memes that flow through our social networks.
This is not just the poetic raving of a crazed health activist; this is a very real thing, a fact made increasingly obvious by the twin disciplines of social neuroscience and interpersonal neurobiology. Books such as Social Intelligence by Daniel Goleman, Connected by Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler and The Neurobiology of We by Daniel Siegel M.D., demonstrate conclusively the power of relationship to shape, not just our thoughts and opinions, but the actual form of our tissue, our endocrine systems and our health. In this process, we literally create one another.
A highly persuasive body of scientific knowledge now reveals that the human brain is an inherently social organ. In fact, Louis Cozolino, author of The Neuroscience of Human Relationship suggests that it’s folly to study human brains in isolation. Our brains work best when they’re connected in social networks; this is their natural habitat. As a result, almost everything that we say and do is contagious: our knowledge, opinions, perspectives, ideologies, behaviors and states of mind flow constantly between individuals, teams and tribes.
The implications of this interpersonal connectivity and contagion are profound. Suddenly, our sense of individuality fades away and we begin to see ourselves as part of a much larger whole that contributes immensely to our personal knowledge and experience. When other people explore the world and learn new things, their experience flows through social networks, revealing important insights about how the world works. In this way, other people act as our eyes and ears, as sensory organs for the entire tribe.
As an individual person, I can see and experience only a tiny fraction of the world. My vision is incredibly limited, my sense of hearing and touch are vanishingly small, my lifespan is extremely short. In fact, as an individual, I am very nearly helpless. But with other people as part of my extended nervous system, I effectively have 7 billion scouts and allies who are scanning the universe, gathering information and gaining experience that might well be important to me. In fact, all people, living or dead, are potential eyes and ears for me, and for you. To put it another way, you are all working for me right now, just as I am working for you.
Never mind the fact that a large percentage of my 7 billion scouts and allies are wasting their sensory potential on well-traveled paths and trivial amusements. Never mind that many of my scouts are focusing their attention on aspects of the world that are worthless, ugly or violent. What matters is that a great many of my allies are directing their attention towards new knowledge, undiscovered potential, outrageous beauty and new solutions to old problems. These people are probing the world, observing its beauties, looking into mysteries and bringing back new knowledge that may well find its way into my body. In the process, they are making me smarter and wiser.
Even better, I find that I am no longer so disturbed by the stupidity and ignorance that I see in the world around me. Yes, of course people are behaving badly and yes, of course, many are using their eyes and ears in boring and counter-productive ways, adding nothing whatsoever to our collective sensibility or knowledge.
But that’s all beside the point because many people are in fact looking at the world in profoundly important and interesting ways. These people can help me extend my intelligence, add to my knowledge, sharpen my attention and deepen my compassion. In all probability I will never meet them in person, but that hardly matters. My allies make my life richer. They make my mind more expansive. They help me to see a bigger, more abundant and beautifully mysterious world than I could ever see on my own.
And for that, I am profoundly grateful.