The connnection between halloween and chocolate is pretty obvious, but where does a marathon fit in? To understand this connection you may have to have been where I was today, at the race in Central Park, watching runners lurch toward the finish line. "It's the best drug I've ever had," one runner said to me after the race. "What, the runner's high?" I asked? "No, all the people clapping and cheering, for hours, he said. "I've never felt so deeply connected to the human race."
Cleary a part of the thrill of the race is a sense of increased status, of being noticed and appreciated by so many people, which as I wrote about recently, is deeply rewarding for the brain. It was amazing to see how many people went to a lot of effort to spend their whole day cheering on complete strangers - shouting themselves horse over megaphones, ringing bells, playing horns. It must feel great to be on the receiving end of all this.
High on relatedness
I propose there's something other than just status at play at a race like this. The reward people experienced from Halloween and the race comes from a sense of increased relatedness. Relatedness is another domain which the brain keeps track of, using the same circuitry activated when we think about or eat chocolate. (Relatedness is also one of the five major goals the brain appears to have, that I am writing about over 5 weeks at the moment.)
A feeling of relatedness is a primary reward for the brain, and an absence of relatedness generates a primary threat. A feeling of relatedness is what you get when you feel like you belong in a group, when you are with others of your ‘in group'. At Halloween, this expanded from a few people you say 'hi' to normally in your neighbourhood, to hundreds of people you don't normally speak to. Everyone was suddenly 'in it together', sharing a common experience. At the race, this expanded, as a runner, to every person you saw in the race and in the crowd, which now expanded to tens of thousands. Runners get on a 'relatedness high'.
Friend or foe?
Just as the brain automatically classifies situations into possible reward or threat, it does the same with people, determining, subconsciously, whether each person you meet is either a friend or foe. Are they someone you want to spend more time with (walk toward if you see them on the street) or stay away from (cross the road if you see them coming). And here's the rub: People you don't know tend to be classified as foe until proven otherwise.
It turns out that which kind of people you are surrounded by has a big impact on brain functioning. You use one set of brain circuits for thinking about people whom you believe are like you, whom you feel are a friend, and a different set for those whom you view as different to you, a foe. When your brain decides someone is a friend, you process your interactions using a similar part of the brain you use for thinking about your own experience. And when people in your in group experience pain, you relate to this using a different bran region than when people are in your out group.
Friends are not just a 'nice to have'
Having many positive social connections (eg., a sense of relatedness) doesn't just increase your happiness, it can even help you live longer. John T. Cacioppo, a professor at the University of Chicago, led a study of 229 people between 50 and 68 years old. He found d a 30-point difference in blood pressure between those who experienced loneliness and those with healthy social connections. Loneliness, the study showed, could significantly increase the risk of death from stroke and heart disease. As Cacioppo tried to understand the data, he realized that loneliness might be more important than society generally realizes. "Loneliness generates a threat response," Cacioppo explains, "the same as pain, thirst, hunger, or fear." Being connected to others in a positive way, feeling a sense of relatedness, is a basic need for human beings, similar to eating and drinking. For those of you who think that "hell is other people", remember that social isolation is not the brain's desired state. Having friends around you reduces a deeply ingrained, biological threat response. Being surrounded by thousands of people your brain perceives as friends, well that seems to be so rewarding, people are willing to take extreme pain to experience it. The reason may be the reward function involved, which turns out to be quite an intense experience.
The neurochemistry of safety?
When you interconnect your thoughts, emotions and goals with other people in your in group, you release of oxytocin, a pleasurable chemical. It's the same chemical experience that a small child gets when it makes physical contact with its mother.
In a paper published in "Nature" in June 2005, a group of scientists found that giving people a spray containing oxytocin increased their levels of trust. The paper reports that in non-human mammals, "oxytocin receptors are distributed in various brain regions associated with behavior, including pair-bonding, maternal care, sexual behavior and normal social attachments. Thus, Oxytocin seems to permit animals to overcome their natural avoidance of proximity and thereby facilitates approach behavior." Our animal instincts seem to naturally cause us to withdraw and treat others as a foe, unless a situation arises that generates oxytocin. This phenomenon makes sense: it explains why facilitators and trainers insist on "icebreakers" at the start of workshops, and why "establish rapport" is the first step in any counseling, customer service, or sales training manual.
When you sense someone is a foe, all sorts of brain functions change. You don't interact with a perceived foe using the same brain regions you would use to process your own experience. One study showed that when you perceive someone as a competitor, you don't feel empathy with him or her. Less empathy equals less oxytocin, which means a less pleasant sensation of collaboration overall. Thinking someone is a foe can even even literally make you less smart, according to one paper published in 2002.
When you think someone is a foe, you don't just miss out on feeling their emotions, you also inhibit yourself from thinking their ideas, even if they are right. Think of a time you were angry with someone. Was it easy to see things from his or her perspective? When you decide someone is a foe, you tend to discard his or her ideas, sometimes to your detriment.
All of this points to the need to be more aware of the automatic nature of this friend / foe response, and more consciously question whether our automatic reactions to other people are always in our best interests. All this also explains why people love parades, sports games, and yes, even gruelling marathons.
PS: There's more on the organizational implications of this idea in a paper called 'Managing with the brain in mind'.
PPS: My new book 'Your brain at work' goes into relatedness, and the other goals of the brain, in lots more detail.