Always connected, but not connecting?

    Many of us spend our days staring at screens – at work, at home, on the bus, and even while walking around or having dinner with friends. New research finds that these new habits may hurt our capacity to really connect with others.

    In their weekly conversation, WHYY’s behavioral health reporter Maiken Scott and psychologist Dan Gottlieb discuss this research.

    Barbara L. Fredrickson, a professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina, recently wrote about this issue in the New York Times, and is about to publish research on this.

    She says that plasticity isn’t limited to the brain. For example, when people don’t exercise, their muscles atrophy which diminishes their physical strength. She says that our habits of social connection are the same way – if you don’t use it, you lose it, the capacity for connection diminishes

    In Fredrickson’s recent research participants, attended a six-week workshop on an ancient mind-training practice called metta, which teaches participants to develop more compassion and love toward themselves and others.

    Her team discovered that the meditators not only felt happier and more socially connected, but the practice also altered their vagal tone. The vagus nerve ties the brain to the heart and is crucial in regulating our internal system.

    Scientists have long thought that vagal tone was mostly stable, but Fredrickson says it is changed by your social habits.

    Increasing people’s vagal tone increases their capacity for connection, friendship and empathy.

    Fredrickson concludes that if the vagal tone can be positively impacted by practicing metta, it can be negatively impacted by non-connecting habits, such as retreating into a digital world rather than connecting with those around us.

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