Technology is great -- but people still need human contact

An unexpected outcome of computers and other technology is the loss of the "human moment." A term coined by Harvard lecturer, Edward M. Hallowell, it refers to the psychological encounter that can happen only when two people share the same physical space. The human moment is a quality of interaction that you don't get through technology, even phones.

Technology has been helpful for the most part; it makes our lives better. But difficulty occurs when the human moment is lost. Hallowell has amassed a large body of research to show that face-to-face interaction is essential for keeping our brains sharp. In order to really converse with someone, you have to keep reading their physical cues, a level of communication not available with computers. In front of a live person, our brains read visual cues every second with automatic responses from us.

In-person contact stimulates an emotional reaction, according to Hallowell. Face-to-face exchange appears to stimulate the attention and pleasure neurotransmitter dopamine, and serotonin, a neurotransmitter that reduces fear and worry. This explains why working at the computer or talking on the phone can be as exhausting as watching TV. Our brain gets fuel from human contact and gets overloaded from the torrent of data surging at us each day.

These human moments are so powerful in our lives that recent research has suggested that loss of human contact is a contributor to the development of Alzheimer's.David Bennett and other researchers from the Rush University Medical Center studied 823 people in and around Chicago. With an average age of about 80, none of the participants had dementia at the start of the study.

Over a four-year period, researchers asked the participants about their social activity -- whether they felt they had enough friends, whether they felt abandoned or experienced a sense of emptiness. They were given a score between 0 (least lonely) and 5 (most lonely). At the end of four years, 76 people in the study developed Alzheimer's. Those who did were more likely to have poor social networks; the higher they scored, the greater the risk. Those with a score of 3.2 or more had double the risk of those scoring below 1.4.

"It turned out people who have this feeling of being socially isolated are at higher risk of developing Alzheimer's," says Bennett. "We are talking about a tendency to feel isolated and alone in the world," he says. "You can have a small network and not feel isolated; or you can have a large network but don't know how to connect, and feel isolated."

There are just two pre-requisites for the human moment: people's physical presence and their emotional and intellectual attention. Yet, technological changes in the last ten years or so have made a lot of face-to-face communication unnecessary. Voice mail, e-mail, teleconferencing are one-way, electronic means to communicate "more efficiently."

The psychology of the mind changes when the human moment vanishes. At its worse, paranoia fills the vacuum. But for most of us, the human moment is replaced by worry. Electronic communication does not convey the cues that typically alleviate worry such as body language, tone of voice and facial expression. Human contact is like a safe place for the psyche where we feel understood and grounded.

Little misunderstandings are common as the number of human moments decrease. Wrong impressions from a misunderstood e-mail. or voice mail are the result of vanishing human moments. People may take offense and question the motive of others when they discover they are not on a certain circulation list or included on a memo.

The human moment appears to be a "regulator." When it is not present, people's primitive instincts become more apparent. Just like calm, stable people can become road raged in the anonymity of their automobiles, so too can courtesy be thrown out the window at the computer keyboard. Some things you can do to increase human moments:

  • De-tether from technology. When you are feeling dragged out at work or at home, take a break and seek out a human moment. It doesn't have to last long or even be intimate. It can be professional and brief. You just need to pay attention.
  • Diversify your workday. Schedule your day with "interruptions" of human moments, exercise and fresh air. Walk on your lunch hour, work out after leaving the office, and take a break with close friends. The variety will help you avoid "brain drain" and increase your productivity.

Barbara Bartlein is the People Pro. To get a copy of her book on relationships, please visit: Marriage Help

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