Paula LaBrot

My beloved editor, Flavia Potenza, named this column “All Things Connected.” I’ve been thinking about that while picking a subject to write about at this most wonderful time of the year. I started by looking up the exact meaning of the word “connection.” It comes from a Latin root, meaning to pair or link together. So, together with you, dear readers, I’d like to explore the concept of connection beyond the techie stuff this column is usually geared to.


Matthew Lieberman is the director of UCLA’s Social Cognitive Neuroscience Lab. He postulates that our need to connect to each other is actually more basic than our need for food and shelter. He challenges Abraham Maslow, a renowned psychologist best known for his theory “The Hierarchy of Needs.” This theory lists human needs in order of priority. Maslow’s first step is physiological: food, shelter, water.

Lieberman postulates Maslow is incorrect tand that “Social Connection” is the first priority of survival for mammals because mammals are born dependent, immatur, and incapable of taking care of themselves. “You are only here because someone formed a social connection with you. When you cried, someone had a powerful urge to connect with you to see that your physical needs were taken care of. And you cried, not only for physical needs. You cried when you were socially separated because social separation causes pain in infants.”

Lieberman views the kind of pain that cries out for connection as a huge achievement of our brain. As a fundamental platform of survival, social connection primes us for success. He says our urges to connect and the pain we feel when this need is thwarted motivates us to live, work and play together.


Lieberman describes two separate neural networks in the brain. The outer surface of the brain is for Analytic, problem-solving thinking. A second network lies on the midline of the brain. It is just for Social thinking, including “mind-reading.” Empathy comes from our social brain, the awareness of the thoughts and feelings of others. You can’t see a thought or a feeling, but you can infer what I think, believe or feel from non-verbal cues. Those on the autism spectrum have a hard time with this, hence, difficulty in making connections. Often, an Asperger person will pair with a “neuro-typical,” who has a well-developed Social neural network, like a blind person pairs—connects—with a guide dog. Those who have aberrant Social neural network function, like sociopaths devoid of empathy, are called “sick.”


The Social neural network motivates us to take in information and to share—connect— that information with others, something essential to the success of mankind. It turns out learning with the Social network can, sometimes, be more permanently productive than with the Analytic network. Learning in order to teach others is more effective than learning for a test. Older kids teaching younger kids learn and retain much more information than kids just prepping for an exam. This is true for adult learning as well.


Social connection is a powerful neuro-cognitive resource. According to Goodreads, Lieberman’s book, “Social,” argues that our “need to reach out to and connect to each other is a primary driver behind our (human) behavior. Our basic drive for survival and our unique ability to read each other’s minds are dependent on our ability to form social connections. This wiring often leads us to restrain our selfish impulses for the greater good.”  


Small wonder Social Media is so powerful today. We seem to be hard-wired to connect with each other. I am just thinking of the connections that mean so much to me. My beloved family and animals. My treasured friends. My spiritual family. My Topanga community, from the beautiful and inclusive Joanne Martinez to the generous and loving Leslie Carlson to the magical animal whisperer Annabel Seimer Yablonsky  to Robert Greenfield, who silently, humbly does so much to help others and never takes credit for it.

Some people have a rough time with connections. Not everyone has a mother they can love. Many cannot even connect with themselves. But someone, somewhere connected with you, or you wouldn’t be here. I’m glad you made it.

My Christmas wish for you, beautiful readers, is to find the connections you want, need and deserve. I hope having those connections makes it possible for you to reach out and help someone disconnected to feel plugged in.

On Christmas morning I always go outside between daybreak and 7 a.m. There is a hush; you can feel the good in the world. Swirling around in the air are billions of invisible signals, the posts of people all around the world yearning to connect and wish each other peace. It is so magical.

Vamos a Ver et Pacem!


Paula LaBrot

Paula LaBrot is a 30-year resident of Topanga, a futurist with a special interest in the uncharted waters of cyberspace.

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