The Neuroscience of Interconnection

Western culture has a curious habit of rediscovering what’s already known. Typically, spirituality comes to a profound understanding first, and a philosopher gets it next. Sometime later, psychology catches up, and neuroscience finally ‘discovers’ it with a brain scan.

Cutting-edge neuroscience has found that the brains of social species like mice, bats and humans tend to synchronise, creating what neuroscientist Thalia Wheatley describes as “a single überbrain that isn’t reducible to the sum of its parts”. Like when oxygen and hydrogen combine to make water, what emerges is qualitatively different.

The researchers studied what happens when two people create a story together. Starting with the prompt “A group of children encounters aliens”, each person took turns to tell the next part of the tale. Caitlyn and Lorie set their account in a strange landscape, and during one of her turns, Caitlyn told of how the ground started to rise up beneath the feet of the children. A moment later, Lorie took her turn, saying that “It felt like the creature took a breath.” This is exactly where Caitlyn planned to take the story: the kids were walking on the alien itself. Caitlyn felt that they “were on the same page”, while the research neuroscientist concluded that this was synchrony at work.

I’m always pleased when new research upsets the myth of an enclosed, Cartesian individual, but social psychologists came to a similar conclusion a while ago. Take, for example, the phenomenon of ’emotional contagion’. You may have noticed how the mood of people you’re with impacts your own, how we tend to unconsciously ‘catch’ other people’s moods. You may also be familiar with the ‘contact high’ phenomenon, where simply sitting with someone on a psychedelic journey makes you feel like you’ve taken the substance too. Although this goes against the Western model of the enclosed individual, the evidence for this kind of connectedness is overwhelming.

Decades before psychologists came to this realisation, a few philosophers grasped that we are profoundly interconnected. In 1945 Maurice Merleau-Ponty wrote:

“as the parts of my body together compromise a system, so my body and the other’s are one whole, two sides of one and the same phenomenon, and the anonymous existence of which my body is the ever-renewed trace henceforth inhabits both bodies simultaneously.” (1962)

Each of us is woven into the rich tapestry of existence. As the philosopher of consciousness, Christian de Quincey wrote:

“We are constituted by webs of interconnection. Relationship comes first, and we emerge as more or less distinct centres within the vast and complex networks that surround us” (2005).

The spiritual traditions knew this long ago, and Zen Buddhist Monk Thich Nhat Hanh echoed the wisdom of the ancients when he said, “We are here to awaken from our illusion of separateness.”