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Russell Collins: So Happy Together

Research and the stories of conjoined twins reveal that our sense of well-being is neurologically linked with our sense of connection to others

A friend of mine recently made a pretty surprising claim about the nature of happiness. There was a little group of us up on the hiking trails above Santa Barbara where we occasionally walk. Guy is one of those people who synthesizes huge amounts of information from reading, the Web and just his day-to-day conversations, then uses it later as material to amaze his friends. This was Guy’s claim: The happiest people in the world are conjoined twins.

Russell Collins
Russell Collins

A pretty amazing piece of data, but he backed it up with a study cited by neuroscientist Daniel Gilbert in his book Stumbling on Happiness. Gilbert’s conclusion, Guy said, was that the constant presence of another human being — literally from birth, and in every waking moment — might be the essential component of a happy life. And only one group of humans gets this benefit: conjoined twins.

This idea got me pretty excited, to be honest. I thought it could even be one of those serendipitous discoveries in psychology that throws just enough of a different light on things to change the game. In neuroscience, these moments are often the result of a rare injury that incapacitates a portion of the brain, suddenly revealing — usually by its absence — some previously indistinguishable facet of experience or personality. But this! This would be a discovery about happiness that had undoubtedly been hiding in plain sight forever, right there in the stories of conjoined twins. If these sisters are the happiest people on Earth, then haven’t we solved the happiness problem? Happiness equals togetherness — simple as that.

Part of my excitement was that this idea foots naturally with an emerging (but not yet fully mainstream) movement in the study of human behavior. Not much important goes on in some isolated interior of the human mind, this thinking goes. It’s all social. Counter to most common-sense notions, experience — even consciousness itself — arises in a shared space, not in a solitary vacuum.

Guy’s twin hypothesis seemed not just to fit nicely with this theory, but to take it to the next level. It suggested that happiness, which is the Holy Grail of pretty much all human activity (to say nothing of all therapy), is a function of pure unadulterated connection between people. The greater the connection, the more happiness. And thinking beyond the individual — thinking more globally — it also made good sense. Much of human unhappiness — the kind that causes war and ethnic cleansing rather than the kind that shows up in therapy — does seem to flow directly from our failures to connect with each other across political, cultural or religious boundaries.

It turned out that Guy had overstated the case made by Gilbert’s book just a little — or maybe I was too eager and got the story slightly skewed. Gilbert’s point was that conjoined twins are often surprisingly satisfied with their lives, despite having what you or I would consider quite unhappy circumstances. Re-reading Gilbert’s book took the edge off my excitement, but I checked a little further into the literature on conjoined twins, and the idea still holds water — at least some of it.

It seems to be true that they have historically described themselves as remarkably happy and satisfied with their lives. And, this happiness seems to be profoundly connected to the experience of sharing each other’s lives. Unsurprisingly, they are aware of just how fragile a hold they have on life, and how interdependent they are in every aspect of existence.

A 1997 New York Times article about conjoined twins relates this telling anecdote of Mary and Eliza Chulhurst, born in 1100 in Kent, England. The Biddenden Maids, as they were called, lived 34 years together until one of them perished. Asked to consider separation to save her life, the remaining sister had this to say: “As we came in together, we will go together.” This seemed to me to be another way of saying that, in death as in life, love is all you need.

I Want to Hold Your Hand

James Coan is a neuroscience researcher at the University of Virginia who recently designed a set of experiments using brain scanning technology to help understand the effects of human connection on our sense of well-being when faced with a painful threat.

Coan chose 16 married women who scored in the “highly satisfied” range on a test of the quality of their marital relationship. After situating each woman in the scanner, a colored card was flashed on a screen, cueing her to expect a shock within the next 10 seconds. Coan then tracked each woman’s brain activity using the fMRI, which works in real time (like a movie, rather than the still picture you get on a regular MRI). While shocks were not always administered (for experimental reasons), just the expectation of the shock activated a specific neural pattern in the brain — a pattern that represented how each woman would normally respond when she was in danger. Coan recorded this neural pattern while the woman held a stranger’s hand, while holding her husband’s hand and while alone in the scanner.

Coan’s results roundly confirmed his expectations. Not only did handholding change the patterns of firing in the brain in ways that showed a reduced sense of danger, but handholding with a spouse was more powerful than merely holding the hand of a stranger. And, suggestively, women who scored higher in Coan’s test of marital satisfaction registered more powerful effects from handholding with their spouse than those with lower satisfaction. These effects were spread across many areas of the brain, evolutionarily old as well as relatively modern brain circuits that influence bodily responses, emotions, and even our interpretation of the nature and level of danger. The importance of this is that it suggests — like the stories of conjoined twins — that our brains are wired to be connected to other brains, and that our sense of well-being is neurologically interwoven with our sense of connection to others.

Coan calls this the phenomenon of the “social brain”; our brains are interlinked, and our minds are no longer seen as bounded within our personal skulls. Coan theorizes that — through human evolution — basic survival functions such as mutual protection and sharing life’s burdens are literally distributed across multiple brains in a social group or between relationship partners. To avoid this being interpreted as just poetic license, Coan spells it out: “This is not metaphorical, but literal, even at the neural (or brain cell) level.”

Daniel Siegel is another scientist whose work at UCLA’s Center for Culture, Brain and Development is demonstrating that the concept of individual minds and brains operating as separate containers no longer holds up. Siegel has written extensively and convincingly about certain structures of our brains that are designed to synchronize with other brains through mechanisms of the body, including facial expression, gaze, tones of voice, our sense of smell, etc. This synchronization occurs in groups of people, but it is especially strong in dyadic interactions, or interactions between two.

The brain structure Siegel points to as central to this process is one called the orbitofrontal cortex, which, among other things, is involved in interpreting the significance of events out there in the world. “Should I be worried about this?” would be one question the orbitofrontal cortex would be involved in asking. As part of the answer, this structure of the brain has developed a capacity for seeing into the mental and emotional states of other humans, a capacity Siegel calls “mindsight.” “At best, our resonance circuits enable us to feel the internal world within others, while they in turn weave us into their inner world and carry us with them even when we are not together.”

Siegel calls this resonance the “we of well-being,” echoing Gilbert’s sentiment that happiness is mostly a communal affair, and adding the final element: Our ability to retain a powerful internal representation or image of the important people in our lives is what allows the rest of us — those not permanently joined to another — to experience ongoing happiness and well-being through connection.

The idea that we are neurally interconnected for happiness and well-being is a potent one, with big implications for what it means to be human. Evolution may have designed our brains to tune in to other brains around us to maximize our chances of surviving in a primitive environment. Ironically, most modern threats to our survival are other humans who, in turn, are synchronizing with their group against the threat we pose toward them.

As psychologists, neuroscientists and clinical therapists begin to make use of this new understanding of the social brain, I can’t help but wonder if there is some universal neural bandwidth we just haven’t dialed into yet that could connect us in sharing the load of keeping the planet peaceful and viable for our race. When this happens, I know I’ll hear about it first from Guy.

— Russell Collins is a Santa Barbara psychotherapist and divorce mediator. Click here for more information.

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