We know that deep breathing, spending time in nature, practicing gratitude, and cultivating the habit of giving to others all help nurture social and emotional health. My acronym for this is BANG!: breathing, appreciation, nature, giving.

I’d like to share with you two other glimpses into how our brains work, and then some practical tips based on these for strengthening social and emotional health during the pandemic, and particularly during the holidays.

Glimpse #1 The Cat from Cheshire

One of my favorite exhibits in the Exploratorium science museum in San Francisco is an eye-popping “illusion” called the Cheshire Cat. Normally our two eyes combine two slightly different images into a three-dimensional view of the world. In this experiment, a mirror diverts one eye to see a blank white surface to the side, while the other looks straight ahead at the face of a partner. The brain combines the two images, and you see an ordinary scene of your partner against a white background. No surprise.

But when you slowly move your hand against the side wall, as if erasing a whiteboard, something astonishing happens. Your partner’s face begins to disappear. Your brain prioritizes movement in the periphery even over faces, so that the white wall begins to replace your partner’s face.

Soon, you only see eyes and a mouth on a white background. And often just the mouth remains, like the grin of Lewis Carroll’s Cheshire Cat after the body has disappeared.

Our brains prioritize mouths, and sometimes eyes, in interpreting the world. And today, masks often cover our mouths.

Glimpse #2: Monkey Ice Cream

It was a hot summer in Parma, Italy, in 1992. At the university researchers were mapping brain pathways in Macaque monkeys, observing which neurons would fire as the monkeys planned and performed actions such as eating. The firing sequences were reproducible.

A graduate student entered the lab with an ice cream cone in hand – not part of the experiment. Unexpectedly, as the student brought the cone to his mouth, the monkey’s neurons fired, even though the monkey had not moved, as if the monkey had grasped the cone, moved it to his own mouth, and eaten.

The researchers dubbed this system “mirror neurons“, where the same neuron fires when an animal senses another’s actions as when the animal performs the action on its own.

Since the first paper was published in 1996, we’ve learned that in humans this is far more complex, with multiple interconnecting systems, but our brains are profoundly connected to others, directly experiencing their intentions, actions, and emotions.

Empathy has a foundation in neuroscience:

  • Mirror neurons fire more in-person than when watching a video, but there is some activity in any social setting and with any of our senses (just hearing someone else crack a peanut in a different room lit up the monkeys’ brains as if they had cracked the peanut).
  • Experience matters. When watching a tennis match, all of our brains would fire with the action. A tennis player watching will have a far richer and more complex response.
  • Mirror neurons fire with others’ intentions, not just actions. This may partly explain why batters have time to decide whether to swing or not at a major league pitch that travels to the plate in just 0.4 seconds, the blink of an eye.
  • This phenomenon might explain much of why people enjoy being spectators of sports, theater, even video games (Twitch).

Hybrid Holidays 2020

We had an extended family birthday celebration in my family in November. We aimed to make use both of mirror neurons and of the need to look closely at each other’s mouths and eyes.

Before the party, my wife and I drove to each household to drop off food and props for the party. We saw each one in person, at a distance, outside, with masks, and had brief conversations to catch up. We did contactless handoffs. They all felt our love and intentions and excitement at being together. But no one saw each other’s mouths up close.

Then all of us gathered online for singing, eating, drinking, telling stories, and watching a classic movie together. More time together, all in the same virtual space, and easy to see everyone’s mouth and eyes.

Each phase of the hybrid party made the other richer and more special. Kids – all of us – need both kinds of connection.

Hacking the Social Brain for Social-emotional Health 

In addition to designing ways to maximize satisfying our brain’s need both for physical proximity and for face-to-face interactions in a time of masks and physical distance (be creative!), here are four other observations:

  • Prioritize play. For kids, and for youth of many mammals, play is a major vehicle for honing our social and emotional skills. We plan, we anticipate; we react, we adjust; we connect. And it’s so valuable for our growth and health that we experience it as fun. During the pandemic, shared video games are the main social connection for many. Be on the lookout for opportunities for safe play. It might be online mysteries or escape rooms, VR gatherings, or old-fashioned board games with those you are bubbled with. Imaginative play is the best.
  • Mixed-age groups are ideal. Kids need time with other kids. They learn different skills than when they interact with kids their own age or with adults.
  • Share stories. Stories connect us. Look for ways to tell or share or experience stories together as a way to be in the same emotional space.
  • Smile with your eyes. When masked, make the most of your eyes and body language for conveying expression.
  • Mix family and friends. Kids, and all of us, do best if we connect with both family and non-family, both friends and non-friends. Each is a different kind of social learning and connection. It’s harder to get all of this safely during a pandemic, but it is possible with safe distancing and masks.
  • Mix old and new. One of the joys of the holidays is re-living the traditions and rituals of our families. Celebrate whatever of those will work this year. But not all of them will. Instead of settling for a less-good version of the past, this is a year to add some new traditions, new decorations, new events to make this year special in its own right.

We are intensely social creatures, and also resilient and creative ones. We know that deep breathing, spending time in nature, practicing gratitude, and cultivating the habit of giving to others all help nurture social and emotional health. Adding insights from the above glimpses into the brain can amplify these benefits.

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Alan Greene MD DrGreene.com contributor