Networks

A Natural Social Network

June 17th, 2021

<<Ettore was a successful entrepreneur.

His firm was thriving, every year there was an increase in turnover. He had quite a few trusty collaborators.

He had a lot of work.

His business closely reflected market logic: long hours in the traffic, tight schedule, continuous communications, but above all, inevitably and not at his own choosing, many strategic, commercial relations.

In short, ‘he was a client, and he had a clientele.’

Things were going well: an increase in economic resources and opportunities, positive feedback for the company, social prestige.  He had built himself a fine house, he owned an impressive car, he had achieved most of the material satisfactions that our society proposes as models of inspiration.

At the same time however, a sense of incomprehensible malaise was growing daily in him.

An undefinable inner discomfort. Anxiety and restlessness made him easily irritable. His physique, his body also began to show dysfunctions. Relations with ‘old friends’ became rarer. Work, activities, various engagements left few opportunities for being together just for the pleasure of it, only occasionally. Everything was sucked into an individual and/or family isolation, as if there were no alternative.

Ettore felt caged, despite his apparent total freedom of action. Systematically, a situation was produced in which he felt he was a mere pawn.

One evening, coming home after a long day of profitable work, he groaned with the usual anguish. Looking in the mirror, he asked himself: ‘What kind of pain is this? I feel something is missing for me, but I don’t know what. Why do I feel this malaise even though everything is working as it ‘should’?

A few weeks went by.

It was dinnertime on an early summer evening. Ettore was in the kitchen at home with his family. The windows looked onto a spacious, inviting olive grove. There was the golden light of sunset and a pleasant temperature.

He noted with surprise the families from the neighboring houses crowding into the olive grove. The children ran around the grass among the olive trees, the adults conversed and smiled. Observing them, he felt an irresistible instinct, a spontaneous impulse. He felt a strong desire to take part, to share that collective atmosphere.

He went downstairs at once…>>

As soon as Ettore finished telling me this story, I intuited there was a link between his two sensations which echoed the line of thought of my sociological research into market society, capitalist society.

I realized there was an underlying but direct and very intense connection between the first negative sensation he talked about in the first part of his story – that incomprehensible malaise arising from a context lacking authentic relationships, a form of solitude and emotional isolation induced or imposed by the context rather than chosen – and his subsequent account of the positive emotion, the spontaneous, instinctive reaction, the irrepressible desire for disinterested sharing.

Stories like Ettore’s were cropping up in my experience more and more frequently.

It was then that I began to investigate beyond the confines of sociology.

Exploring the new social neuroscientific discoveries, I came across studies on mirror neurons, the neurobiology of emotions and ‘feelings’ and Psycho-Neuro-Endocrino-Immunology (PNEI), fields in which neuroscientific research has obtained its most interesting results in the discovery of the natural connection between the individual and collective levels of human existence. These findings suggest that we should always consider the vigorous bond existing between nature and culture, body, and mind.

These neuroscientific novelties allow us not only to identify and highlight via scientific confirmations the close relationship between the Western capitalist model of society and the characteristics of the multiform widespread discontent; but also to underline the high positive incidence this new knowledge might have in the processes of the political and social construction of reality, countering (paradoxically using its same instruments) the dominant mindset which ‘believes only in what it sees,’ i.e. which is scientifically proved.

Moreover, they offer the opportunity to critically observe ‘bodiless communication,’ i.e., the technologically mediated communication of the new digital media which is today so highly publicized; also, to reassess the triumphal so-called ‘social reality,’ putting it into a humbler perspective.

And it is indeed the relational aspect which most needs to be reconsidered.

The pervasiveness of the market and the logics of profit are tending increasingly to individualize and differentiate us. Following the maxim ‘the more single individuals, the more consumers,’ relations are being shaped on the commercial model, leading to social detachment, desertification of human relations and widespread diffidence. The individualism of the capitalist system taken to its extremes tends to weaken relational networks, favoring above all instrumental, unauthentic networks. It induces mistrust towards other people via the dominant mentality of ‘each person acts solely and wholly in their own interests.’

All these influences generate in the human being a considerable psychophysical malaise, the origin and consequences of which are today scientifically proven by the social neurosciences.

The neuroscientific innovations

For me, science is research which aims at understanding both human and biological nature. The science I have ended up knowing and loving, as I have discovered it in its pure and noble form […], is unifying, spontaneous, intuitive; it solicits a process which is closer to submission than to domination and has very little to do with competition, control, division […]. I am now convinced that science in its deepest essence is a spiritual activity […]. At its best it is a search for the truth which embraces the values of cooperation and communication, based on trust in both ourselves and other people.

Candace Pert, Molecules of Emotion

…at this point we could alter Descartes’ maxim cogito ergo sum to sum ergo cogito.

-Laila Craighero, Mirror Neurons

Our minds perceive reality via our bodies. The recognition that most human thought consists of non-conceptual content, that thinking means having a body in a dynamic relationship with other people, with the social, human, and natural environment, that many categories of thought are mental representations of bodily states: all this complicates and indicates the reality of a society which tends to push people away from one another physically and emotionally and uses ‘bodiless communication’ in its relative forms of sociality.

Starting from the rejection of Descartes’ obsolete mind/body dichotomy, social neurosciences allow us to see human beings as a unified mind-body entity, with notably important implications for various fields. They show the connection between the social origin (lifestyles, pressure, and conditionings from the society we live in) and the onset of physical and psychological diseases such as tumors, depression etc., which is vitally important for treatment strategies and the study of communicative and relational modes. They also confirm the close bond existing in nature between health and the sociocultural and socio-communicative environment in which we live.

Artist Til Kolare’s edit of Seurat’s famous painting

The new scientific discoveries broaden our perception, so that people are no longer seen as made up of separate pieces or, worse, as a container of diseases or symptoms interpreted exclusively with a specialist approach, but as a network in unceasing communication, with continuous internal and external interaction. Substantially, a holistic approach is advocated. It considers that the whole ‘human network,’ besides being characterized by intense inter-relationships among the internal elements and constituting a mind-body unified entity, is strongly influenced by factors linked to the sociocultural environment, more so than science has so far imagined and documented.

We now know that intelligence and sociality in human beings are forms of biological adaptation and calibration linked to the overall functioning of a system made up of simple elements: neurons. They interact with one another in a purely quantitative way via synapses, i.e., connections which have no symbols or procedures, but are the biological reactions to signals reaching the brain from every single part of the body, which in turn constitutes the doorway to the mind and to our innate relationship with other people.

Today we are immersed in a type of social reality and digital communication which tend to exclude the body, not so much in terms of the multiple conceptual and virtual aspects which give the opportunity or, in some cases, the illusion of being able to do without its physicality, but rather in terms of the impossibility of activating most of its innate biological mechanisms which are only stimulated by relations that are physically present.

The social neurosciences seem to be offering the prospect of a more objective analysis which moves beyond those apocalyptic or apologetic theories about the risks linked to the creation of a strongly individualized society and the domination of a ‘bodiless communication.’

Human beings are like a social network.

Mirror neurons

<<One evening, Evelina was going home on the tube. Seated in front of her was a man of about fifty years old. His head was bent down, his hands covered his face, and his shoulders were shaking violently. He was crying.

When she saw him, Eveline began to feel upset.

She looked round and saw the other passengers looking at the man with pained expressions. She hoped someone would intervene and offer consolation for his suffering.

No-one moved.

Evelina felt pain. An intense, widespread pain.

Suddenly, she got up and went towards the man…>>

Probably all of us have at some point found ourselves in front of a person crying desperately or whose face was twisted in pain. During these moments we feel distress in response to seeing their suffering. This happens because in our bodies, more specifically in our brains, the same natural biological mechanism is activated as when we ourselves are feeling that same emotion or carrying out that same action. A kind of instinctive self-mirroring in the other person.

Mirror neurons are that innate ‘as if’ mechanism, i.e., as if we ourselves were feeling that pain, because the same neurons activate in us and in the person directly suffering. We all have them in our biological makeup, obviously with subjectively differing dosages. They enable us to enter empathy with a fellow human being without having to think about it, in an instinctive, pre-rational and pre-reflective way.

Mirror neurons were discovered in the motor area of the human brain in the 1990s by the team led by the neuroscientist Rizzolatti. They are the biological basis of our innate, cognitively unmediated, understanding of human action in relation to intentional movements.

Substantially, mirror neurons seem to possess this natural, biologically given basic function regarding our tendency to co-participate, share and understand others for our living together as social beings.

Without a mechanism of this kind, it is as if we were able only to get a sensory, ‘pictorial’ representation of other people’s behavior, without ever knowing or understanding deeply the meaning of what other people are feeling. Certainly, since we are endowed with complex cognitive abilities, we might be able to reflect on what we perceive and infer the intentions, expectations or motivations which would explain other people’s actions.

However, our brain can understand these immediately, recognizing them without recourse to any type of reasoning, basing itself solely on its genetic/motor capacities. The mirror neuron system thus appears decisive in creating that ground of common experience which is at the origin of our ability to act not only as individual subjects, but above all as social subjects.

Complicated forms of imitation, learning, gestural and even verbal communication are in fact all stimulated by the activation of specific mirror circuits. Not only that, but our very possibility of perceiving other people’s emotional reactions is correlated to a certain group of areas characterized by mirroring properties. Emotions too, just like actions, are instinctively shared; other people’s perception of pain (sadness) or disgust activates the same areas of the brain cortex as are involved when we ourselves feel pain or disgust.

This shows how rooted and deep our bond with other people is, or rather how bizarre it is to conceive of an ‘I’ without a ‘We.’ How can one perceive one’s separate self if not in terms of another self who is not oneself? Without our own separate selves there is little sense in defining another self, and certainly without the other self, there is little sense in defining one’s own self.  The mirror neurons, with their scheme of neuronal activation, seem to be the anchors of this essential interdependence, this indispensable relationship between oneself and other people.

We constantly define ourselves in relation to others.

Non-verbal brain-sharing synchrony/telepathy meme template.

In other words, all these neuroscientific indications mean that when we meet another person in the flesh, we enter a relationship with them without having to think about it, automatically, even unconsciously, since nature has endowed us with a physical part specially designed for this, cells (mirror neurons) which reside in our bodies (brain). The pressures from the type of society we are living in cannot modify it; it is physically preformed. As often happens in our hyper-individualized and hyper-technologized (hyper-virtualized) society, we risk suffering because we perceive the lack of all those spontaneous and natural stimuli which are present in our body and specially designed for this purpose, and which are activated unconsciously in face-to-face relations with other people.

The neuroscientist Rizzolatti declared that:

 […] these mechanisms demonstrate that we have a huge need to interact with other people, to be part of a society […] After the 1970s there was this very strong trend towards individualism. We began saying that individuals observe and do nothing, they are there living and minding their own business, they have no partner, they have no body (a reference to the cognitive revolution, the dominant idea that individuals observe and process the information coming to them from the world. The metaphor of the brain as a computer). It is not so. A person who does not interact, who has no body, who has no relations with other people cannot be happy, because those basic mechanisms are not activated. Just as a person whose blood sugar is not normal is unwell, so a person who has no relations with other people is also unwell […]. I insist on the bodily relationship because the body has been for a long time considered an evil […] The body is also a community relationship, if we have no body, we cannot create a community, and all the current elements tell us that this is a huge need and hence a strong message against individualism […] Individualism must be moderate.

He understood this: that associations make human beings stronger and bring out individuals’ best qualities, and they give the joy which is rarely felt when we stay on our own, […] while living on our own the opposite often happens, that we see people’s other sides, those for which we need to always keep our hand on our sword.

-Italo Calvino, The Baron in the Trees

Several years ago, I contacted professor Rizzolatti. I asked him for confirmation on whether, after having referred to the need for participation and the exasperated individualism of our society, it might be said (with due caution and proportion, hence without falling into simplistic biological determinisms) that mirror neurons are the natural, scientifically proven, physical predisposition of human beings towards sociality and the understanding of other people for the sake of cohabitation. I wondered whether a sociocultural climate orientated towards the exaltation of individualism may provoke, if not a real direct suffering, the sense of a sort of physical ‘lack’ of something which part of our brain (the mirror neurons) really needs (the predisposition and need for participation).

Professor Rizzolatti confirmed what I too claim and am trying to demonstrate: that certain types of social organization, certain types of society like ours, may be defined unnatural for us human beings, hence a source of widespread distress, considering the situation also or specifically from a scientific point of view, in relation to our natural biological predispositions.

The human being is a social network.

Neurobiology of emotions and ‘feelings’

It is a completely new change of paradigm which fundamentally leads you to understand you are not alone. You are linked to everyone else. Your emotions are the key.

-Candace Pert, Molecules of Emotion

<<Christian had suffered a serious head injury in an accident at work.

After time spent in hospital and a period of convalescence, he seemed to have recovered completely, but he began to have frequent episodes of embarrassing behavior.

Sometimes, when he had urgent bodily needs, he would start to unbutton his fly or unzip his trousers in the presence of other people or strangers. In other cases, he publicly recounted intimate details of his family life.

Or in other cases again he burst out laughing during a funeral…

He seemed to have lost any consideration for and attention towards the social context he found himself in…>>

Starting precisely from the study of neurological pathologies like this, i.e., patients who had undergone damage to the brain areas which are necessary for the control of certain classes of emotions and ‘feelings’ and which had been formerly intellectually intact, the Portuguese neuroscientist Damasio demonstrated that the abilities of these individuals to orientate their lives within society were deeply disturbed. The individuals in question continued to have an inadequate decisional capacity which manifested itself in the absence of some social emotional faculties such as embarrassment, compassion, or guilt. Damasio’s research was concentrated on the possibility that these faculties were innate, on the scientific demonstration that emotions and the corresponding ‘feelings’ are a part of the human biological heritage.

Thanks to our understanding of the neurobiology of emotions, we can today appreciate the deep meaning of emotional mechanisms, their universality, their innateness, and their status as a natural part of our biological heritage.

Research has demonstrated that in our bodies there are emotions which are predisposed for our social existence and which presuppose living with other people and able to orientate our lives within society. They are social-type emotional faculties such as embarrassment, compassion, shame, guilt and so on, which can guide our decisional capacities in collective contexts.

It has been scientifically proved that the biological reality of human self-preservation leads to the virtue of ethical social behavior; so, in our inalienable need to preserve ourselves as individuals, we are naturally, biologically led to contribute to the preservation of others, other individuals, other selves. Hence the basis of social emotions is the existence of and need for a collective reality, the presence of other organisms in a complex system of interdependence with our organism.

The powerful effect which feelings can provoke is indeed noteworthy. However rough a person may be, as soon as he expresses a strong, authentic affection, he emanates a particular fluid which changes his physiognomy, animates his gestures, colors his voice. Often the silliest being under the impulse of passion manages to be highly eloquent in the idea if not in the language and seems to be moving inside a luminous sphere […] There was in the voice, in the gestures […] the communicative power of the great actor.  But are not our fine feelings the poetry of our will?

-Honorè de Balzac, Father Goriot

Balzac speaks in his elegant description about what science has today confirmed regarding the communicative and socially fundamental nature of emotions and the corresponding ‘feelings.’ The ‘feeling’ of an emotion is the essential content of a map of a particular bodily state. In other words, the earthquake of emotions paints within us a map of ‘feelings,’ i.e., bodily feeling.

Emotions and Brain, stock photo (by Fabio Berti).

Just as when something emotional happens we go weak in the knees, or vice versa, feel quite elated. It is the group of neural settings corresponding to the bodily state, from which a mental image of that state can emerge. Substantially, the ‘feeling’ of an emotion is the idea of the body in the moment when it is perturbed by the emotion. It is the ‘feeling’ of our being an indivisible mind-body entity. It explains the difference between saying ‘I felt…’ and ‘I thought…’

Emotions reside in the body. It is here, in the somatic experience, that feelings are healed.

We can no longer attribute less validity to emotions than to the physical and material substance. We must consider them as cellular signals involved in the process of translation of the biological indications coming from inside and outside our body, which literally transform mind into matter via the development of chemical, electrical, electromagnetic, vibrational processes of the neurotransmitters and receptors present throughout our organism. As the neuroscientist Pert has said: ‘We are not just bits of meat. We are vibrating like a tuning-fork; we send a vibration to other people. We transmit and we receive.’

We are a natural social network.

Psycho-Neuro-Endocrino-Immunology

…If we adults too started using more cuddling in our inter-human relations we would certainly develop far fewer organic and also psychic diseases.

Enzo Soresi, The Anarchist Brain

Hugs, not drugs.

-Candace Pert, Molecules of Emotion

<<Ettore, that same Ettore we have already met, had a series of restrictive physical pathologies during the period of incomprehensible pressure and anguish.

He suffered from cervical pain caused by various hernias which had caused him to go to a neurosurgeon out of desperation. He was ready to undergo a risky neurosurgical operation if it could alleviate his suffering. He also had colic and digestion problems which forced him to eat a strange diet.

Ettore gave himself a bit of time.

Bravely, he decided to change his life. He left that competitive, stressful environment. He dedicated himself to a job with lower pay. He took care of his meaningful relationships. He spent more time with his daughters, re-established old relationships, cultivated relations with his original family.

He slowed down.

He dedicated himself to the house, nature, self-improvement, knowledge. He began to study. He got two degrees.

He earned a lot less, had a less impressive car, less social prestige. But not long afterwards his hernias receded, food and digestion were no longer a problem. His body and his mind had begun to work in unison again. All symptoms disappeared….’

 Elsa too was suffering.

She worked in a prestigious, competitive environment. Envies, disloyal career moves, conflicts were the order of the day. But above all, the hostility of the person who used to be her best friend inside and outside the company. The boss had set them up in competition with each other. In the end, their boss preferred Elsa. But her friend made Elsa feel guilty about it.

Elsa suffered from that situation. She had not been the one who had wanted it. She was the passive recipient of it. But her friend misinterpreted it and cut off all relations. Elsa’s pain got worse and worse until it became an illness.

It was only by making the sense of guilt go away and recovering her relationship with her friend that Elsa managed to get better…>>

PNEI (Psycho-Neuro-Endocrino-Immunology) is one of the scientific disciplines which most vigorously support the close connection in nature between the mind, the body, and the social environment.

Body-Mind-Society, source unknown. Found on https://www.quora.com/What-is-the-importance-of-social-psychology-in-a-health-facility.

Fast, stressful lifestyles and the excess of communicative stimuli to which we are submitted daily can shift the endocrine axis, with a consequent anomalous release of neurotransmitters that cause a series of sufferings in the organism. The discovery of the regulatory role of some substances which connect the various (psychological, neurological, endocrine, and immunological) systems in relation to the context we live in, reveals the connection and the importance of controlling environmental stress in order to allow these systems to continually re-organize the resources of the organism for our psychophysical wellbeing.

Mind-Body Relationship. Source unknown.

It becomes clear that living both online and offline in a pressurized, particularly competitive, and performance-related socio-communicative context may induce an unnatural condition of constant tension and chronic stress which often develops into a daily state of malaise and discomfort, and sometimes even into fully-fledged illness.

It is we who are the social network.

The importance of the body

…Official medicine deprives itself of a valid aid by excluding the physical contact, ignoring the fact that the body is actually the doorway to the mind and refusing to recognise the importance of emotional expression as an event involving both mind and body, with the potential capacity for completing and sometimes substituting talking therapy and drugs.

-Candace Pert, Molecules of Emotion

Our biological makeup bears marks of our capacity and need for living together, recognizing one another as similar beings. The absolute importance of inter-subjectivity for the wellbeing of human beings is today accompanied by and defined in the concept of ‘inter-corporeality,’ understood as the innate pre-rational and pre-reflective relationship between bodies, a concept originating from social neurosciences.

‘Inter-corporeality’ describes a crucial aspect of inter-subjectivity because the latter should be considered as based not only on the mere perceived resemblance between our body and other people’s, but on the fact that we human beings share the same fundamental intentionality and spontaneous activations, since we are biologically programmed to achieve similar basic goals.

All this new knowledge highlights our innate social dimension, which is physically written into our bodies and is the foundation of co-construction for cohabitation. For our personal and collective wellbeing, the importance of others has been underlined and confirmed scientifically, in contrast with the extreme individualism dominating our lives today. The importance of the body must be recognized too, in opposition to the acritical diffusion of the concept of ‘bodiless communication,’ which is also perversely contaminated with perfidious profit-serving algorithms. The organic bond of individuals with their own kind is expressed through forms of sharing which involve other selves and other bodies, since it is the human body that contains the mechanisms and cells dedicated to exercising what I have defined as our ‘biological sociality,’ i.e., our constituting a human social network.

Based on the scientific confirmations, our sociality is not constructed only through human activities (socialization, interaction, communication, reciprocity, sharing, cooperation etc.), but is already present and is activated in our innate biological predispositions, which are mapped out throughout our bodies. Hence ‘biological sociality.’

Ignoring it, creating organizational systems and communicative behavior which do not include our and other people’s bodies, risks becoming a source of insidious, often unidentified malaise.

The body is of fundamental importance, indeed. I would go so far as to call it paradigmatic, but it is, alas, rarely considered.

In modern societies we see on the one hand an intense ‘need,’ a community necessity, for reciprocity, emotion sharing, mutual aid, which seems overwhelming but is instead activated with strangers and in the bodilessness of the digital world. It is a ‘need’ which has evolved precisely from its systematic denial in the type of individualized, virtualized society we participate in.

On the other hand, a disenchanted, shifting, temporary attitude of individuals is emerging, an expression of a reality which is wholly dependent on immediate circumstances and in line with the fluid spirit of our time. This generates continual ‘flights,’ transitions from one group to another without any relational or affective concerns: a kind of digital nomadism.

There is no strong sense of belonging to a group, and a fluent, continuous dynamic of aggregation and disaggregation prevails.

It is a sociality consisting mainly of adhesion rather than belonging, produced with just a simple click.

The profit-based society pushes individuals to think exclusively of themselves, their own reputations, their own ranking. In a word, of their personal interest. This makes them easier to control and manipulate, since their desires are measurable and predictable via algorithms, and fileable as Big Data.

The digital swarm with its trail of data is not a community. Emotions do circulate online, in social networks, but authentic feelings cannot circulate, because they have no body to be spread around and consolidated in, no biological human sharing.

The body and consequent ‘soul’ gathers people together and unites them. The digital swarm consists of isolated individuals, of a ‘being alone together.’ Digital inhabitants of the net do not gather, they lack the physicality and the ‘field’ of meetings which would produce a ‘We’ incarnate. They generate a particular bodiless gathering, a mass of strangers without pathos, soul, or spirituality, massed together by Big Data.

If there is an attempt to reduce the entire universe to a huge flow of data and every living being to a series of algorithms, since the elusive conscience cannot be inserted into machines, this conscience will gradually be removed from human beings.

Bodiless communication

 <<Olga was a happy 17-year-old.

For some time now she has lost her smile. She has shut herself off in a worrying physical and digital isolation. In the gym, she puts on her earphones and immerses herself in a solitary workout, surrounded by other people.

She feels a deep but unjustified sadness. She does not understand what is happening to her.

She feels anaesthetized. Her days are characterized by prolonged periods online. She watches programs that make her feel bad and sad, but they keep her hooked.

After becoming aware of the instrumental contaminations of the commercialized web, and after a period of digital fasting and with her heart open anew to the world, Olga comes back.

She has a contagious smile and a newfound desire to have fun…>>

In online interaction, the absence of bodily physicality deprives us, and those involved in the digital relationship, of an important reference point in the process of learning and understanding our own emotions and other people’s emotions and intentions.

In speaking we send a vibration through the air that someone else perceives as sound […] but we also transmit other types of vibration. A fundamental law of physics says that the nearer we get to a source of energy the greater its effect on us, and the further away we get from it the more this diminishes.

-Candace Pert, Molecules of Emotion

The widespread ‘emotional illiteracy’ includes the impossibility and/or inability to recognize other people’s emotions. At the same time, it also prevents us from understanding our own emotions, leading to emotional disinterest or, in worst cases, psychopathy. The necessary ‘inter-corporeality’ which emerges from the social neurosciences is excluded. In our reality, which is so heavily permeated and influenced by digital media, more and more frequently we are seeing symptoms which are harmful to human health, when digital communication is not used with due awareness and remains subjugated to market logic.

But what happens when ‘being there’ in today’s daily life undergoes a decisive change of meaning, when it becomes an obligatorily ‘sensational’ experience in a non-place and with no body, when bodily presence retreats in the face of media presence?

Again, following the ‘the more single individuals, the more consumers’ maxim, the ‘profit culture’ has resulted in a cult of individualism, of pure subjectivity. We have a culture which, by placing subjective needs and desires at the center of our attention, has led to an individualistic bend in human beings; a culture which unceasingly and manipulatively exalts the ego.

Food for Ego. John Holcroft illustration.

A considerable individualization of behavior and lifestyles has occurred. Rather than being dictated by any set of irrevocable values, they are largely shaped by social pressure and dominant consumer logic, stimulating increasingly narcissistic and voyeuristic tendencies which manifest themselves uninterruptedly online and in social media, largely thanks to our ability to ‘become media’ ourselves.

With the overwhelming popularity of ‘bodiless communication’ as the main way of constructing our experiences, of forming our knowledge and allegiances, and of meeting real and imaginary worlds, the concepts of relation and interaction, also those of presence and proximity, are undergoing a deep, unexplored transformation. On one hand, the chances of distance learning and contact are being amplified; on the other hand, there is a drastic reduction in face-to-face opportunities for the same activities, leading to new kinds of shortcuts in social and identification processes.

Communication becomes ‘the social media place,’ a dimension of space which no longer needs the body. An endless agorà, a mare magnum of strangers, where we can exhibit ‘who we are’ via virtual identities and the omnipresence of absent bodies, but not without risks.

Because of the speed with which the techno-social changes are taking place thanks to techno-media, their rhythms of propagation, these changes are often poorly compatible, not only with the individuals’ social characteristics and personal data, but also (and perhaps most importantly) with human beings’ actual biological characteristics. In addition, they are incompatible with taking the time for mental distancing, critical reflection and recognition of fake representations, illusory constructions, and market demands, often concealed behind digital communication.

Digital Narcissism, mirroring Caravaggio’s “Narcissus,” source unknown.

Without precise knowledge of the means and types of communication required for a healthy type of usage, without an awareness that bodiless communication, since it derives from natural face-to-face communication, may be able to fulfil one or more specific functions, but cannot substitute the magic, warmth, and elation of meeting others in the flesh, i.e., the complexity and completeness of face-to-face communication, there is a very high risk of falling prey to instrumental manipulations. If we have this precise awareness, and eschewing any demonization, we can explore whatever new itinerary technology offers us.

Today there is a wealth of research and studies which confirms the danger of digital reality, especially its commercialized content, which can influence and condition our lives, above all but not only young people’s lives, with a worrying growth in online narcissism, nihilism, and voyeurism.

Final Thoughts

Instead of generically “external” universal values or a universal system of values imposed by some group (philosophers, governors or priests), we have the opportunity for a universal management of human values emerging from the experience of the human organism itself.

-Carl Rogers, Person to Person: the Problem to being Human

The market society, with its profit-based logic, produced greater diffidence and greater distance between individuals. It has altered the boundaries of contact among people, generating a growing detachment which is not only social, moral, and civil, but also physical and emotional. These phenomena have been further amplified by the type of virtual communication, of virtual social reality, of the now supreme ‘bodiless communication,’ whose abuse and instrumental commercialization risk producing damage to human health.

We are becoming merely the human environment for the recursive reproduction of the capitalist system.

The implications discovered by the social neurosciences might enable us to make more effective proposals for building a sociopolitical and sociocultural alternative, able to preserve our psychophysical wellbeing, our mind-body equilibrium. Most importantly, they might help us reinforce our critical analysis of the capitalist type of social model and the pervasive ascendancy of the insidiously commercialized and instrumentalized parts of digital communication.

Critical considerations now no longer only originate from the thoughts of enlightened philosophers, sociologists and political or charismatic leaders, but also from the hard, natural, generally more objective sciences. Though being perhaps harder to confute, hence harder to communicate to the public at large, the latter theories are also useful for fighting predatory capitalism and its creepy profit mindset.

Our need to be together is a biological given. What is not a biological given is the way we decide to be together, or how we construct the reality in which we live socially, politically, and culturally.

Perhaps we are looking at a new paradigm: why persevere in constructing social organizations, communication systems, cultural worlds, ethical concepts, economic and political doctrines without considering our natural biological heritage?

Why continue living in a dehumanizing capitalist society which is manifestly unnatural for human beings?

The time is now ripe for an approach that takes into consideration the progress in the biological, cognitive, and social sciences, which offer a more accurate and objective idea of the human being, a fundamental requirement for the observation and assessment of the individual/society relationship, and for the critical analysis of the commercialized, instrumentalized aspects of digital communication.

In these times, the wellbeing or frailty of humanity depend mainly on the extent to which institutions governing public life include a correct vision of human beings, their nature, their functioning, and the significant aspects of their existence in their principles and policies.

Nowadays, there is an overriding need to put human beings and all their dimensions back into the center of attention, in a society which has removed their centrality and provoked widespread and often unexplained distress and malaise. I mean human beings in the most complete sense of the word, starting from the body with all its innate influences on social life and its non-verbal nuances; also considering the micro and macro context in which they live, with its wide range of influences. We must reset our concept of communication, which has currently been emptied of human meaning and interpreted in terms of commercial appeal. We must question our concept of relation, which has been anaesthetized by technological mediation and deprived of the warmth of physical presence. 

We are beings who need exchange, dialogue, a sense of belonging and recognition, trust, physicality, and all this is being eroded in today’s unnatural society.

The pandemic will end.

It will be the opportunity to consciously return to being those marvelous biological social networks which instinctively mirror themselves in one another.

Dr. Marco Simonetti is a sociologist with a master’s degree in Communication for Organizations. Psychosocial Gestalt Counsellor. For several years, he has been investigating critical aspects of complex society, with particular attention to the implications of social neuroscientific discoveries. In 2016, his book “La società contronatura. Complessità, comunicazione e neuroscienze” was published. He teaches Elements of Applied Sociology at the Socratic Popular University of Rapallo, Genoa. Contact: counselling.sociologico@gmail.com or marcussimo@tiscali.it.

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