In the field of neuroscience, it’s easy to ask questions. This week’s Retire Sooner guest, Michael Platt, is known for developing innovative ways to find the answers.
A professor of Brain Science for Business at the esteemed Wharton School, Platt joins Wes Moss to talk about the brain science of loneliness and some ways one can improve the health of your personal connections to help nurture your happiness later in life. They look at what types of data trigger our brains for marketing, business, and interpersonal purposes. Platt also explains why our social circles may get smaller as we get older, and why maintaining long or deep friendships may be harder for men than women. He also notes how the big social move to Zoom because of the COVID-19 pandemic has affected our abilities to connect with each other, as well as the long-term and gender-related effects of social media.
Time-Stamped Show Notes from the Video
- [00:03:32] Michael explains the Brain Science for Business course he teaches at Wharton, as well as advancements in neuroscience technology that aid in predicting consumer behavior and in hiring dynamic teams.
- [00:12:58] Wes and Michael discuss how the brain is a complex system with emotional and cognitive pathways that integrate information from our senses and help us empathize with others. This system influences how we connect and synchronize with others, and may be linked to the number of friends a person has.
- [00:23:10] Wes and Michael note how people are more likely to be friends with those who they’re similar to, and that deeper conversation can synchronize brain activity and promote friendship.
- [00:39:09] Michael shares how strong social connections can be important for both physical and mental health. He brings up a study on monkeys, in which it was found that those who reached out and made more friends after a natural disaster aged less and were more likely to survive.
- [00:49:55] Michael goes over reasons for “deaths of despair,” especially in rural areas in the US.
- [00:55:36] Michael discusses the harms of social media, especially for young girls, due to addictive algorithms and social comparison, impacting brain development and mental health.
Read The Full Transcript From This Episode
(click below to expand and read the full interview)
- Wes Moss [00:00:00]: Have you ever thought about what it actually takes to make a friends? What clicks inside of you to make an acquaintance, a real friend, a real close social connection? And why is it harder for men to make friends the older we get? And why do you live longer and make more money the more friends you have? And what can we do to make more and better friendships as we age? After all, socialization is at the core of our livelihood and it gets tougher as we get older. Well, to answer all these questions and to understand the science behind making better social connections and friendships, we found Michael Platt, who is the director of the Neuroscience Institute at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and is our riveting guest that you’re about to hear from right here on the Retire Sooner podcast. I’m Wes Moss. The prevailing thought in America is that you’ll never have enough money and it’s almost impossible to retire early. Actually, I think the opposite is true. For more than 20 years, I’ve been researching, studying, and advising American families, including those who started late, on how to retire sooner and happier. So my mission with the Retire Sooner podcast is to help a million people retire earlier while enjoying the adventure along the way. I’d love for you to be one of them. Let’s get started. This is the retire sooner podcast. So half of this show focuses, let’s say, on the money side of retirement so you can retire early. But the other half focuses on all of the life habits and skills we need to live up a joyful retirement. And one of the things that is this constant battle and constant struggle in, let’s call it a population that’s stopped work, right? So they lose this giant social network. Is friendship connection, maintaining their social network. And I’m fascinated by the science behind it. And I started asking some questions recently. What actually makes a friendship? Because I see people that it’s pretty challenging if you’re 70 and you’ve worked all your life and you haven’t really focused in on socialization and to kind of restart. And it’s hard for some people. It’s really hard. So I wanted to have somebody on like you to go to the root of that and what our brain tells us, how scientifically, how do we form connections, I think it’s kind of a fascinating topic. So we’re so happy we found you and thank you for coming on the show.Michael Platt [00:02:37]:I couldn’t be happier to be here. And you know what? I just turned 56 last week. And so the thought of retirement, not that I’m retiring anytime soon, started to pop into my head. And I’m thinking, okay, what is the right time? But the notion of kind of losing the web of connections that I have at work in my lab, the initiative that I run, and the myriad of people who are out there, students that’s a bit terrifying.
- Wes Moss [00:03:08]:
- It is.
- Michael Platt [00:03:09]:I could see becoming very lonely very fast.Wes Moss [00:03:12]:
Yeah, it’s something that our audience knows that it’s a lot more work than just saving money and investing. I think it’s a harder of the two. So can we start with I know that you’re still teaching at Wharton and you teach this class, the Introduction of Brain Science for Business. Can we just start, like, what am I learning in that class? What do you teach?
Michael Platt [00:03:32]:
Yeah, it’s a fascinating course. I mean, it’s my personal baby kind of created out of whole cloth. And the idea is to say, can we take the technology, the tools, the insights, the analytics from neuroscience and apply that to business to make business more efficient, more effective and more humane? So there are many, there are myriad challenges in business that we’ve kind of reached a glass ceiling, if you will, in terms of like, approaching them from economics or psychology. Right. And the reason why is because the standard kind of way to ask those questions is by asking people questions using surveys. Right. And we know that self report is noisy, it’s biased. Sometimes it’s an outright lie. So what neuroscience does is it gives us the technology to peek under the hood to see what’s really going on inside people’s heads. Often it’s very different from what they say, very different from what we can know ourselves. So those processes can inform our business practice in ways that we never thought possible before. So the low hanging fruit there is marketing and brand strategy where it’s bona fide return on investment. You collect some scraps of brain relevant data. You can use even the cheapest, most scalable technology, and you can optimize ads. They will perform better.
Wes Moss [00:04:54]:
You’re going to get, hold on, go back. This low aging fruit too. So you’re saying that it’s not that difficult to find data on what truly triggers us?
Michael Platt [00:05:09]:
Wes Moss [00:05:10]:
To your point, I love the term under the hood. Tell me a little bit more about that.
Michael Platt [00:05:15]:
Yeah, so I think when most people, if you ask them, well, what’s neuroscience? And they’ll think of it’s a brain scan. It’s taking pictures of somebody’s brain, pretty colored pick lights on brains. And that is a standard method in neuroscience, but it’s really expensive. It’s really cumbersome. You have to go lie in an MRI machine in a hospital somewhere. You can’t put it on a customer’s head and measure how their brain is responding to ads or to products or displays in a retail environment. And so we’re now at a position where we have what I would call much more scalable technologies. So technologies that are lightweight, in many cases, wearable. We’ve developed our own wearable brain sensing, high fidelity wearable. Brain sensing technology can be worn by anybody, anywhere. And it’s cheap now. So instead of spending millions of dollars, we’re talking about hundreds of dollars. And it’s really the question is like how do you use that data? And what’s really remarkable and I didn’t really think I’d see the day again, but it’s happened over the last decade, which is that if I get a little bit of that data in a couple dozen people, I can predict what millions of people will do. I can predict what ads they will respond more favorably to. I can predict what moments in the ads are going to be effective at driving engagement, joy, feeling good about it and remembering something about it. So that at the point of purchase, the person’s more likely to recall that information and more likely to actually buy. Right. So we can now understand in a really fundamental way the why behind the buy. Wow. Why do people buy? Right? And this is just marketing. So I think that’s the tip of the iceberg, because every aspect of business runs on brain. And what are the most difficult parts of business? Well, like hiring. How do you actually go about hiring the right person for the right job? How do you precisely measure their intrinsic talents, traits, and motivators? How do you do the same thing for teams? How do you get teams to have chemistry and work well together? Where does innovation and creativity come from? And how can I structure a workday or workplace so that we maximize that? So those are all questions that we’re working on, and we can demonstrate neuroscience delivers.
Wes Moss [00:07:38]:
You think about neuroscience as a layman, and you do think of the pictures we see, and it’s MRI, and it’s different colors in the brain. This lights up for that as an example of some of this newer technology. What are we wearing, and what kind of feedback are we getting in the kind of a more scalable, less expensive way?
Michael Platt [00:07:59]:
Yeah. So we use brain imaging for certain kinds of questions. Basically, we want to test a hypothesis like, oh, the reason you avoided buying that stock was either because you were fearful of loss or maybe you’re not so good at calculating probabilities and aging forecasts. Those could be different reasons. And we know that those live in different parts of the brain. Where it gets really interesting now is scalable wearable technologies. So not only are they lightweight, not cumbersome, don’t interfere with what you’re doing. But honestly, what we’ve created is a lightweight athletic headband that you can wear for 810 hours a day, honestly. And it provides clinical grade brain signals. These are electrophysiological signals, so they’re think of it as brainwaves. And everybody’s kind of heard of brainwaves. Like when you sleep, your brain kind of slows down. And what we do is we take that data, which can be transmitted wirelessly, and you can decompose this sort of complex mush of brainwaves into individual waves that are either fast or slow or medium. And the sort of amplitude or size of those waves indicates different brain states, which can be things like how focused you are, how engaged you are in an ad, for example, or conversely, kind of how much your mind is wandering or how creative you might be in the moment, how much stress you’re feeling. One of my favorite my favorite probably is a metric we’ve come to know and love, which is called synchrony, which is this unbelievable kind of black magic phenomenon that is real and causal. But when we have a good relationship with somebody, when you just click with somebody of chemistry, it could be your partner, your spouse could be somebody at work. You finish your sentences, each other’s sentences. What’s really cool is that for those people, when they are together, their brain activity actually becomes synchronized. That indicates that they’re kind of processing information in a very simple did we know this?
Wes Moss [00:10:09]:
Have we known this for a long time or is this relatively new?
Michael Platt [00:10:11]:
No, this is only the last few years. It’s new knowledge. We now know it’s not uniquely human, so we’ve observed it in monkeys and bats and mice and birds all in social situations. And what’s really cool about this is it’s a biomarker or a biological marker of chemistry. So it’s an indicator and a predictor of higher trust, better communication, better teamwork and collaboration, a higher likelihood of cooperating, all of these good things in most business settings. And we found, for example, that it predicts performance of committees. So if a committee has a tough decision that they have to make, a committee that has higher physiological synchrony is more likely to make a better decision than a committee that has lower physiological synchrony. Because when your synchrony is higher, you feel a lot more psychological safety. You find it easier to contribute your own thoughts to the discussion and conversation so you don’t get into groupthink, actually, which is a little bit of a surprise. And then it’s easier to execute because you can all see the path ahead. Right? So it’s easier to get into alignment. And it turns out that synchrony occurs in audiences when they’re viewing a movie or an advertisement that is particularly compelling. Okay, so a really well made movie, a really well made ad attracts everybody’s attention in the same way and makes them feel the same things. And we’re using this right now as a moment to moment indicator of the effectiveness of an ad at kind of creating a sense of us, like creating this kind of a collective effervescence. We’re all in this together. We’re part of this bigger thing and which we believe will predict all kinds of good outcomes.
Wes Moss [00:12:02]:
Is this why I like to watch TV or shows with people versus alone?
Michael Platt [00:12:07]:
Yeah, that’s exactly right. So in the 19th century, the father of sociology, this guy named Émile Durkheim, he was fascinated by human rituals and the observation, like, why do people come together? Why do they go to church together, synagogue, mosque? Why do we do things in groups? That you could do alone. And there’s this sense that there’s something different about the experience. Like, you go to a football game, they play the national anthem and you’re standing up. At least this happens to me in the hair. What little hair I have left stands up on the back of my head. You feel this weird, like, sense of togetherness. And Durkheim called this collective effervescence, which is a term I really love. And he postulated that that’s the glue. That’s the glue that keeps societies together. Okay? It allows us to work together instead of fighting each other. And what’s really cool with regard to synchrony is that if you look at every culture on the planet has rituals in which wes do rhythmic activities together. We sing, we dance, we march, we.
Wes Moss [00:13:06]:
Drum since the beginning time. Yeah.
Michael Platt [00:13:09]:
Every culture and what we now know is that those activities turn up physiological synchrony. Okay? When we move together, we get in sync. Right. And so that’s what it’s there for. Yeah, it is.
Wes Moss [00:13:20]:
It’s the feeling of church. I get that feeling. I don’t get it. It’s a unique feeling of I guess that’s what it is. I’ve never had a term for it, but it’s that synchrony feeling, I guess, because technically and I want to go back and maybe ask you some simpler questions about this, but I think it’s leading to that. Is that the thought that our brainwaves are in sync you mentioned something about chemical versus what would you even call that? I feel like this is a dumb question, but are our brain signals or wavelengths emanating and syncing up with someone else’s or no, it doesn’t work that.
Michael Platt [00:14:04]:
Way, so it’s a great question. There are multiple levels at which this is occurring. So the first and we’ll get back to this is we’re wired to connect. We have a specialized, dedicated circuitry in our brains for managing our moment to moment interactions with each other and our long term relationships. We’ll talk about that later. So that’s the system that gets engaged when I make eye contact with you. When we make eye contact, that system gets engaged. And the patterns of activity in the rest of our brain begin to resemble each other more. They become more synchronized. And this is accelerated by the production and release of a hormone called oxytocin, which you’ve probably heard of. And that’s like a volume knob for the social brain network. It’s a volume knob for synchrony in our brains. Now, the question you raised is the sort of black magic part, the sort of, like witchcraft part. Like, how does my brain know what wavelength your brain is on? And we know it’s causal because there’s a beautiful study done in mice. Like a year ago, it was published showing you take three mice and you plant electrodes in the front of their brain in a part of the social brain network that’s involved part of the brain that’s involved in social interaction. So you deliver the same number of stimulation pulses to each of the three mice. So the amount of stimulation is the same two of them. You deliver it in sync and one is asynchronously the two who are stimulated synchronously come over and they start huddling and grooming each other. And the other one who stimulated same number of stimulation pulses but not in sync with the other two. And it’s just kind of aloof and over there by himself. So somehow no, we don’t think this is being transmitted at a distance. Okay. We do not somehow well, but we can’t rule it out. But it seems unlikely. A more likely option is that there are outward physical cues, manifestations. So for example, when we make eye contact, our pupils begin to dilate and constrict synchronously with each other. We’re unaware of that. We don’t even notice it, but it’s happening. Okay, so that’s one outward cue our brains are and that’s how that thinks. It’s a good illustration of the fact that we’re not aware of 99.9% of what’s actually happening. So our brains are locking into that signal and that begins to maybe be one of the generators of synchrony. There could be other cues like movement. As I said earlier, when we move together, this tends to synchronize our physiology as well. So if you and I play this game, that’s the most common warm up game in improvisational theater, improv theater, where the whole name of the game is being really responsive to your teammates. What they do is they warm up together by trying to mirror each other’s movements. They’re getting in sync. Okay. So there are lots of pathways we think over multiple timescales so we don’t have to postulate some kind of scary action at a distance but telepathy kind of thing. But it works. And that’s the thing that’s so shocking about it.
Wes Moss [00:17:09]:
The S&P 500 fell nearly 20% in 2022. Inflation jumped to double digits and the Fed has continued to relentlessly raise interest rates. It feels like chaos, but at Capital Investment Advisors we take a disciplined approach to investing to help our clients find happiest in retirement. Regardless of the scary headlines. We can’t control the chaos, but we can control what we do about it. If you’d like, help with your disciplined retirement strategy, reach out to our team at yourwealth.com. Let’s just take a step back and talk about friendship. What is the and I never even thought to ask this about anybody because I’ve never talked to a neuroscientist in behavioral science, but what is it that clicks inside of us that says, oh, I feel we’re going to be one. I’m comfortable with you, but then the next level is, oh no, I think we’re actually wes have a friendship. And then how does that persist? Because it’s a fascinatingly complex thing.
Michael Platt [00:18:24]:
Yeah, it’s a process. I mean sometimes you feel like you just click and I’ll get to why. I think that happens in a moment. It’s important to point out that this adaptation for friendship, being wired to connect, is really deeply baked into our brains. So this is part of the human adaptive toolkit that we share with our non human primate cousins. So monkeys I spend half my time studying monkeys. We last shared a common ancestor with them 30 million years ago. And their brains are wired in exactly the same way ours are. They depend on each other. The more friends a monkey has, the longer the the healthier the life they live. The more babies they have for humans, the longer happier, healthier life. And the more money you make as a human being say that again.
Wes Moss [00:19:10]:
Humans, the epidemiologically directly proportional. Your wealth, longevity and happiness directly proportional in some way to your circle of connectedness.
Michael Platt [00:19:20]:
The more friends or deeper friendships, there’s sort of two sides of the same coin. The more friends you have, the longer the healthier, the happier life and the more money you make. Because, honestly, being able to connect with people, being able to communicate, is a really effective skill in business. Right? And what we also now know is that this skill and propensity the temperament it takes to make and keep friends is wired into our brains as well. So people who have more friends, this social brain network is actually bigger. So each of the brain areas that make up this social brain network that mediates our interactions with other people is a little bit thicker. The cortex, there are more connections between neurons and the wires that connect these areas are thicker, which tells us that you can put more information there. You can put more people in there, you can put more records of the interactions we had together. Right. Because friendship is a process and it requires maintenance and investment. That’s one thing we learned from monkeys. Monkeys, they don’t have money. What do they have? They have their time and they have their energy. And so when monkeys make friends, what they do is they spend all their time grooming together. So they go it’s like they’re picking through the fur of each other. It’s not really a hygiene response. They are making a tactile investment in their relationship. And the more they do that together, the more likely they would be to help each other in the future. We do that by going to get a beer or get coffee with somebody, going to play tennis, whatever. Those kinds of activities where you’re investing your time and investing your energy in that relationship.
Wes Moss [00:21:09]:
And what part of the brain is that, Michael?
Michael Platt [00:21:11]:
There isn’t a single part. So it’s a system. It’s a network that kind of begins at the back of the head where the pixelated view of the world that we get from our senses is reassembled into images like, oh, there’s a person there, and oh, it’s a familiar person. It’s wes right? Then that information kind of flows forward in two pathways, two streams. One’s a little lower in the brain and it’s more emotional in its processing. So it is constantly trying, it’s querying the data we’re getting from our senses to see what’s the emotional state of the person we’re interacting with basically from nonverbal cues. So facial expressions, tone of voice, posture, et cetera. Ultimately that will flow to a part of the social brain network that’s involved in empathy. When we actively resonate with the emotional state of another person. And we know that the more activity you have in this brain empathy area, the more likely you are to actually help a person who’s in need to help your friend. So that’s the emotional pathway and then there’s a kind of cognitive pathway that’s a little higher up in the brain and its job is to figure out what another person’s mental state is. So what are they paying attention to? What do they think is important? What are they likely to do next? If you’ve interacted with them in the past, were they trustworthy, were they reliable? Were they fair? And then were they honest? And then those two streams come together to basically inform our estimate of the value of taking different actions, just like economists postulate. So do I approach this person to help them? Do I run away? Do we make a fair deal? Do I sell them my coffee maker or whatever? And that’s kind of how the whole system works and it’s really remarkably good at its job. And as I said before, the thing that’s so amazing is that it’s bigger and people that have more friends. Now the, the critical question there is, is that what you’re born with? Is it to, you know, just fate?
Wes Moss [00:23:10]:
Yeah, that was my next question.
Michael Platt [00:23:12]:
Can you do something about it? And there’s certainly a component that’s due to the DNA you got from your parents, like if your parents are both introverts, there’s a higher likelihood that your brain is going to be wired to be a little more introverted. But Wes now know that it’s actually kind of more what you do with it. Your social brain network is like a muscle. The more you use it, the more it grows. Right? And that’s what’s kind of key here. When you’re asking about how do you make friends, every little interaction, just starting a conversation, talking to the barista at the Starbucks is kind of like getting on the treadmill for your social brain. It’s like getting a little workout in. I wouldn’t skip a day in the gym to stay physically healthy. We should never skip a day in the brain gym for keeping our brain, our minds engaged with other people. And that’s of course what happens when we make a new friends. And you asked about kind of what clicks this whole process ensues. So when we say I approach you wes, I don’t know you from Adam. We start to talk and if you’re kind of a little bit like me, that’s one thing that we know actually drives friendship. It’s this concept of homophily which is.
Wes Moss [00:24:27]:
I’m sorry, say that one more time. It’s homophobic?
Michael Platt [00:24:30]:
It’s a homophily. So it’s basically love of self is what it means and it’s been observed forever but we now know it has really deep biological roots.
Wes Moss [00:24:40]:
Okay, so we do like people that are like us.
Michael Platt [00:24:43]:
We do like people who are like us. We like people who share similar interests. That makes sense. But this is so deep. So it turns out that people form are more likely to be friends with people who share their DNA than people who do not share their DNA. I’m not talking about you’re related but you just happen to through some random assortment of genes. If you looked at the people in my social network they would have more DNA in common with me than people who are not in my social network. Wow. And then you say, well how does that happen?
Wes Moss [00:25:16]:
Michael Platt [00:25:17]:
And again it’s probably some physical outward manifestation of your temperament, your personal, your likes, your preferences, those kinds of things that our brains just pick up on naturally. So it’s not necessarily connections. And so we’re kind of attracted to people who share similar interests, who like similar things, who have similar preferences. And then if that’s true the process goes a little bit deeper. So through conversation, as we reveal more about ourselves and we learn more about the other person and our attention is devoted to them, then our brain activity starts to get more and more synchronized. In fact, we’ve demonstrated this. You can take people off the street who don’t know each other. You bring them into the lab and we give them a structured set of questions that was developed about a decade ago, 15 years ago to promote friendship, basically. So they start out with kind of chitchat and then it goes to deeper questions. As you move through those sets of questions your physiology starts to synchronize. And I’ve seen people crying in front of each other. They don’t want to stop this exercise. We’ve run this in the US, in China, in Europe, Taiwan. It works everywhere. And our friends, colleagues up at Dartmouth have shown that just the process of having a conversation, what that does is it begins to bring your brains into closer alignment. And this actually is a critical part of forming a friendship. And I also think it’s the antidote to the polarization that we see in the United States right now because we’re not talking to each other, we have no chance in getting kind of overlap in our brain activity.
Wes Moss [00:27:04]:
What do you call this? Is this like a well known set of questions? And how long does this take? Is this like a two hour thing that people sit down with?
Michael Platt [00:27:12]:
We usually give people about a half hour, but an hour is ideal. But you could spend an hour. One question. We happen to use a set of questions that’s in the literature that’s called Fast Friends, so literally becoming fast friends. But you can buy similar decks online. So there’s a website called actually Curious that has empathy building cards. There’s another one from Dan Ariely’s Irrational Labs. I think it’s like no small conversations or something like that. And they even have a spice deck if you want to have a fun adult dinner party.
Wes Moss [00:27:51]:
So, again, this is kind of a curate. And by the way, this works in any language, we think.
Michael Platt [00:27:58]:
So, I mean, this is look, that’s a gap in neuroscience just in general. The vast majority of research is done in the west, in educated industrialized bridge countries. But so far as we understand and so far as I’ve observed, yeah, you see the same things everywhere because people are fundamentally people.
Wes Moss [00:28:17]:
So that would lead us to the retiree who, again, they drop their social network. And the other thing, too, it clearly happens over the course of a lifetime, is that people move away. Friends get people get divorced, friends, couples, the other couple gets divorced, somebody moves away, somebody changes jobs, somebody dies, somebody gets sick. So if we had a static network today and there was zero cultivation of the garden, it could be gone in 10, 15, 20 years. So assuming that it takes cultivation, goes back to the conversation we’re having around for people that aren’t necessarily not so great or don’t have a great social network, can they learn to be better at it?
Michael Platt [00:29:08]:
Yeah, I think so. I do want to point out that this tendency to have your social networks contract as you get older is also deeply rooted in our biology. So we see the exact same thing in monkeys. The most intense interest in socializing is during adolescence. The most attention that monkeys and humans pay to each other is during adolescence. That’s why the social media kind of has become such a problem, I think, for kids. And then it begins to fall off as wes get older. It falls off less dramatically for females than it does for males in both monkeys and in humans. And wes know that it’s much harder for men to make and sustain friendships later in life than it is for women. Not coincidentally, men die at younger ages than women do. And we know there’s a relationship there are relationships between kind of social support and your health and vitality in old age. And so it’s really a question, again, of effort, of just making it happen. Put the devices down, put the paper down, and you have to put yourself out there. So I always liken this. We talked about the Brain gym. If you haven’t worked out in a while and you go to the gym, what’s it like? It’s painful. You get out of breath and you don’t want to keep at it but you know, you have to keep at it to get in shape. And the same is true for making friends and keeping your brain healthy, vital and alive. You have to keep working at it. Now, you have questions, I’ll let you go.
Wes Moss [00:30:49]:
I was going to ask about introverts versus extroverts and what the difference between those two. But then let’s just go right to men. Why is it harder for men?
Michael Platt [00:30:56]:
Well, that’s a complex question.
Wes Moss [00:31:00]:
But it is.
Michael Platt [00:31:02]:
But it is true.
Wes Moss [00:31:03]:
Michael Platt [00:31:04]:
It is true. And I think let’s start with monkeys. It’s a little more objective. It’s not as complicated as humans. So in monkeys, kind of like in people, very much like in people where a female kind of lives in terms of the resources, the capital she has depends in large measure on her family and her friends. So females spend most the bulk of their time socializing with each other. Building up these relationships that helps them determine access to resources gives them other added benefits which we can talk about in terms of what being around friends does for you. So their outcomes are very strongly determined by kind of friendships, quality relationships. For males it’s a little bit less so because males are kind of in monkeys their kind of reproductive interests are best served kind of going it alone or having one good friend or ally. And so that’s kind of more what you see kind of monkeys get in line to be high status males do in their prime of life. They might do well and then kind of things begin to fall apart for them and they typically invest so much energetically in those activities that it takes a lot of wear and tear on their bodies. Now, something perhaps, maybe similar might be going on in humans where males there’s more of a kind of pressure, let’s say more impetus. Some of it may be historical, whatever. But males just tend to get into higher risk jobs, higher risk careers, physically and economically which means a greater variance in outcomes. And perhaps then they’re devoting less time and effort and energy to building and sustaining relationships and friendships. So kind of like after they’ve gone through that early and kind of primal prime of life, so to speak but kind of mid period of life where you’ve been investing probably a lot of your time and effort in career. Now, when that’s winding down, maybe you don’t have the skills, maybe you don’t have the network left anymore, you don’t have the interests. So it might take extra effort.
Wes Moss [00:33:18]:
Yes, maybe there’s more of that social brain network. Maybe there’s more atrophy and I tend to see this maybe a little bit more with entrepreneurs that are so dedicated to their careers where they’re not 40 hours a week type people. They’re just twenty four, seven. And it’s real tough for an entrepreneur that was so dedicated to the business to then all of a sudden have, wait a minute, what do I do next? Like, oh, wait, I gotta go. I gotta go meet people. And I think at at 65, I don’t think it’s super easy to meet people. It would be at age 65, I think about the size of weddings, right? The size of weddings. When you’re 25, you go to a wedding, every wedding is like 200 people, whatever, it’s giant. And then you go to a wedding, it’s somebody who’s 50. Those weddings are like 50 people. Now, I don’t know if there’s a direct proportion there, but maybe that’s just I don’t know.
Michael Platt [00:34:20]:
Maybe that’s just well, I mean, I think it’s an interesting observation. Maybe it is getting smarter. But it does follow that arc that I described, which is kind of your interest in an investment in social relationships and social information in general. Your attentiveness, just like, if you just look at how much time people or monkeys spend looking at the faces of others, it peaks in adolescents kind of late teenage years, and then begins to drop off, and it’s much, much reduced in the later stages of life. Now, that’s kind of, on average, some people exceed that, and some people are worse, right? And given what I’ve already said, people who are kind of worse are going to kind of fare worse. Right. If you’ve tended to neglect your relationships and you have less social support, you’re just physically not going to live as long. So we now know that loneliness, this is really powerful stuff. Surgeon general just had an advisory come out, but the data goes back over the last 20 years. Loneliness, which is the gap between the social interactions you want to have and what you’re actually having, is worse. The impact on your quality of life years and your lifespan, is worse than smoking a pack of cigarettes a day or being grossly overweight or having type two diabetes. And that reflects how fundamental our social connections are for our health and well being.
Wes Moss [00:35:51]:
It seems kind of easy to define loneliness, but it’s probably not as black and white as we make it seem to be. I guess there is probably a loneliness continuum. Right?
Michael Platt [00:36:01]:
Yeah. Well, it gets back to you. You brought up introverts and extroverts. This is not terminology that we tend to use in neuroscience, but it’s fine to work with it. There are sort of people who are more interested in and invested in social interactions and people who are less, right. And that could be because they’re either not motivated to do so, it’s not interesting, or it makes them anxious. Right. There are sort of different reasons why people might not put themselves out there. Nevertheless, even if you’re an introvert, working on your social connections will boost. It will turn up your social brain network, it will make it bigger and stronger, and it will lead to better outcomes. So it’s kind of like the old MBA adage, which is fake it till you make it. Even if it feels wrong to you, like it feels uncomfortable. Forcing yourself to actually get out there and talk to people will have the desired impact in the long run.
Wes Moss [00:36:58]:
So within neuroscience, you guys don’t use introverts versus extrovert, but you are saying that it’s a little less work for an extrovert to have a larger network of social connections. Okay, that’s right. And then I guess there’s the deepness of that too. So sometimes you see an extroverted person who friendly to all friends with none, or you can end up being surface oriented. And then I think of the classic introvert that might have a couple of really good deep friendships. I guess I go back to is the deepness of the friendship, the power of the friendship, because you mentioned there’s both the quantity of people that we know and then I think you said actually how deep those friendships really are. I guess that’s the other layer of this. It’s like 101 is we got to get some friends. 201 is you’ve got to have some of those friendship actually be deep. And is that just the process you were alluding to?
Michael Platt [00:38:01]:
It takes time. But what’s really kind of remarkable is that there seem to be two routes to the same outcome. So you could either have a lot of fairly superficial social connections, or you could have a couple of really deep social connections, deep friendship, and both of those can lead you to longer life, greater happiness, et cetera. And I think what strategy works best for you is just idiosyncratic and personal. So for some people with social butterflies, it’s more effective to maintain many superficial relationships. And for others, having those two really, really best friends could be the critical piece of life. And so the data really does show that either pathway is one that can work.
Wes Moss [00:38:56]:
Okay, that’s fascinating. So again, that is, I guess idiosyncraticness of our personalities is what determines that or not. Either way, we know we need to have some level of either quantity or quality. We’ve got to get there in either direction. So this is physical health, mental health, friendship. We know that this is so important. I think of this as almost just it’s the village effect of somebody, you get sick if you’re kind of lonely. You could go a long period of time and not get it taken care of. But if you got a couple of nagging good friends, it’s like, oh, we’ve got the propensity. Oh, you need to go get this checked out. So I’ve always thought of our network as that, but is that a big chunk of it? Just the village effect, I’m going to take care of my fellow villager or friend, or is there something that actually makes us healthier when we have these connections?
Michael Platt [00:39:52]:
So it’s not fully fleshed out yet. But here’s the picture that’s emerging. One component of the impact on your health is exactly as you described. It’s what we would call instrumental, that is other people friends, your connections. They’re tools that help you to get things, resources that you need right? Sometimes you might think of those as alliances. In primates, we might call those alliances, but I think they fundamentally share the same underlying processing. For example, the monkeys we study on this monkey island off the coast of Puerto Rico, we studied the impact of an extreme stressor, a natural disaster or hurricane that hit the island. And this hurricane caused the monkeys to rapidly age is actually something we could go into more detail. So the stressor, what it did, and we believe this is happening all over the planet, is it turned accelerated the aging process, but it did so more in some monkeys than other monkeys. So the average monkey aged two years just by going through this hurricane. That’s eight years of human life. I wouldn’t want that. Some monkeys aged twice that amount and some monkeys aged half that amount. And the critical difference is whether or not they reached out and they made more friends. So monkeys who were suddenly they’re faced with this destroyed environment, what they did was they reached out and they made more friends, they were more likely to survive. And the reason is because the critical resource now after the hurricane was shade. Basically all the trees were killed, very little shade left. The island became eight degrees hotter. So it’s a huge thermal regulatory burden. So every animal, every monkey there had to figure out how to make friends with the right monkeys so they could sit in the shade with them. So they became less aggressive and more tolerant. So that’s an instrumental effect. Now we see another impact as well. And this is a little harder to document, but one of the major ways that our bodies begin to age and which we saw in the monkeys accelerated really rapidly, is we see the breakdown of cells and body tissue due to what’s called inflammation. So when you’ve got an infection of some sort, right, you get this inflammatory response. We talked about that a lot with COVID like this sort of cytokine storm, this massive amount of inflammation that begins to take wear and tear on your body and your brain being with your friends seems to help protect against inflammation because and we don’t understand the mechanisms precisely, but it reduces stress kind of directly. It reduces what we call arousal. So that’s your alarm bells in your brain that are going off and that release cortisol and other chemicals into your brain and into your body. And being with your friends attenuates that, it calms you down. And that helps to reduce the impact of inflammation on your body.
Wes Moss [00:42:56]:
I can’t help to think working in an office with people versus the world we live in: working from Zoom, work from home, the long term implications of work-from-home relative to being in the office. And I think practically as a company, our company, we’ve got, let’s call it about 100 people or 80 to 100 people on our floor that are all either the same company or related companies. And you think about what a day is like if you’re working from home. And then you think of a day when 50 people are in the office. It is so vastly different. And in the world that we live in today, where we do both and there’s this hybrid work, I’m able to see those dramatic differences between being together or just working from home. I would suspect there’s got to be some science around this work from home that I haven’t really read much about it, but the articles in the Wall Street Journal are employers are fighting with their employees to get them back. I don’t see any stories around the long term effects of just working out of your basement.
Michael Platt [00:44:02]:
Yeah, I mean, this is a critical question. It’s something we are working on directly with a number of companies right now to try to help them figure out how to get it right. It’s clearly the case that this kind of interaction is not the same as being in the same physical space together. Our brain are designed to exist with people in three dimensions where there’s a vast array of physical and other kinds.
Wes Moss [00:44:25]:
Our pupils can’t quite track on Zoom.
Michael Platt [00:44:28]:
It’s impossible. I can’t even make eye contact with you. It’s actually impossible. Now, the truth is, as a science, we were caught flat footed by the pandemic, and nobody could do any research, really for like a year after or more after it onset. So we’re just now trying to pick up those pieces. So our understanding is still rudimentary in terms of what’s different. So that’s just kind of unfortunately where we are. I will say, and this has actually been documented, one of the best things you can do to keep your brain healthy and alive, in addition to having friends, is to be physical, to be active, to get out and exercise. And one thing that I think has been overlooked is that when you’re sitting at home all day and you’re not commuting, you’re not walking around the office, you’re not going up and down the stairs, people are logging thousands of steps less every day. And if you look at the cumulative effect of that, let’s say over years or decades, what’s the impact going to be on the health of your body, but also your brain? So we know that one of the best things you can do to keep your brain healthy when you’re older is to keep physically active. Right. It’s a big impact on dementia incidents. It turns out, though, that keeping socially active is about twice the impact of physical activity.
Wes Moss [00:45:51]:
If I had to choose between the gym and playing golf with eight guys. I would choose golf. Then, yeah, go play golf with eight guys.
Michael Platt [00:46:01]:
Just walk the course, don’t ride the cart.
Wes Moss [00:46:04]:
Yeah, I guess that takes care of both. That’s why the Scottish golfer, they don’t use carts in England and Scotland. So I think it’s like the ultimate it’s the ultimate socialization. What about if you looked at the brain, you were to measure this, whether you were talking about the way whether it’s an MRI or any sort of brain activity, the difference between what are you seeing when someone is helping someone or engaging or giving relative to having some sort of selfish act?
Michael Platt [00:46:35]:
That’s a great question. And again, it’s not sort of the one thing I want to dispel is that there’s sort of one area that turns on and turns off when we do these things. It’s sort of the concerted effort.
Wes Moss [00:46:45]:
It’s like a map. Okay.
Michael Platt [00:46:47]:
Yeah, exactly. So what’s really remarkable is that how wired we are to give, most of us. So there’s a network in the brain that we call the Brain’s Value Network. Think of it as reward and let’s say so it lights up. It becomes active when you win money. You win the lottery, when you eat a piece of chocolate, when you have sex, et cetera. Now, when you give money to your favorite charity or you give money to a person who’s in need, those same parts of the brain are active. They can be just as active as when you’re getting something yourself. I mean, that is really remarkable. We call this kind of mirroring. It’s kind of a form of synchrony, which one way to interpret it is that economists have talked about the warm glow of giving, and that warm glow is a real thing. It’s like it’s actually in your brain, and it’s the activation of circuits that give you pleasure, circuits that reinforce your behavior to make you more likely to do it. That’s why, in fact, giving to somebody who’s an identifiable victim, somebody that you see on the street, like, when you have there are different kinds of campaigns for eliciting charity. One is a lot of information, kind of effective altruism, lots of numbers. These are all the number of people you’re going to help, blah, blah, blah. Or the other is sort of the identifiable victim. There’s a person right. And you can see the effect of actually giving on that person’s well being, on their joy. Right. Reduction in sorrow. That’s, in a sense, more effective, because that’s what our brains really respond to. Not these numbers, but to all these cues that our brains are designed to respond to. To put this in perspective, for the vast majority of human prehistory millions of years, our ancestors lived in small groups, probably somewhere between 40, certainly no more than 100 individuals that you had face to face contact with every single day. Those are the conditions that our brains evolved to survive and thrive in. That’s not the conditions in which we find ourselves. Now, we can simultaneously interact with thousands of people, but not all in the same room. Right. And our connections, as you mentioned earlier, can be disrupted as your children move across the country or they go off to college and you don’t see your grandkids. That never would have happened in human prehistory.
Wes Moss [00:49:18]:
Right. To your point, anthropologically, I don’t know if that’s the right word, but we used to live in groups of four to 100 people. 40, let’s say 40 to 140 to 100. But you didn’t used to move away. Right.
Michael Platt [00:49:31]:
Wes Moss [00:49:32]:
Yeah. And now we do. So it’s a unique challenge then.
Michael Platt [00:49:36]:
Wes Moss [00:49:36]:
So that’s a unique challenge of modern society. Gosh, I even think about not that long ago or other cultures, children tend to live with their parents or near their parents. Where in America we have such individualism I guess in America, families spread out all the time.
Michael Platt [00:49:59]:
Yeah. I published a paper with my colleague Peter Sterling last year. We were both feeling really motivated by this observation that in the US. We’ve seen an epidemic of what’s called deaths of despair, especially in middle to older age adults, especially in rural areas. So these are deaths due to drug overdose, alcohol, but other cardiovascular disease, accidents, deaths of deaths of despair. And it was a term coined by Angus Deaton, a Nobel economist, who began writing about this ten or 15 years ago. And you don’t see it in other Western, industrialized educated, rich countries. And so we had to ask ourselves, what is the difference here? And surely some of it has to do with people not having access to the resources that they need. But we think a big part of it is this sort of fractionated kind of society that we live in. So if you look at anthropologically, it always took two generations to raise the third generation. Right? So a human child, because of their huge brains, actually didn’t become a productive member of society until they were 25 or older. And there was no expectation that they would. They were completely cared for by grandparents and parents altogether. And now we find ourselves in the US. Where that is certainly not the norm at all. Not only is it not two generations, but it’s maybe half a generation. So there’s lots of people who face difficult challenges of sort of single parenting, et cetera. I’m not saying anything about kind of lifestyle choices, but with regard to just the demands of raising a very large brained primate to be a productive member of society have always gone well beyond a single individual. Right. And then if you see that, that’s also compounded by the fact that it’s also less opportunity for kids growing up to have a rich, vibrant social network that also remains somewhat of a constant in their lives. I grew up in Ohio in a kind of small working class community, and I had an extended family of like 100, and I saw them all the time because nobody moved away. So they were always there. I mean, for better or for worse. But I always knew they were there. I look at my kids, we moved around all the time, right? So they’ve got proxies for family. They’ve got sort of friends of friends, but it’s not really the same thing.
Wes Moss [00:52:42]:
And then I want to ask you about the number of close connections, and then I want to ask about social media. Just in a minute, but I think it may have been Dan Buettner, the author of The Blue Zones. I’ve heard that a couple of times, but I don’t know if I found the right source on it. But have there been studies on the number of close connections or friendships and then how that’s waned over the last 30 or 40 years? Is that true? Like, we used to have three close friends on average, and now we have one and a half. Is that true?
Michael Platt [00:53:14]:
Oh, I don’t know about that. I haven’t heard those numbers. I thought you were angling toward this other notion. There’s a number sort of magic number 120, which has been promoted by a scientist named Robin Dunbar.
Wes Moss [00:53:28]:
Well, let’s go to that. I like that. That’s a better culture that seems more.
Michael Platt [00:53:30]:
And that’s supposed to be kind of the maximum number of connections that the human brain can maintain because it sort of looks like a constant across history and across societies. And now we find ourselves, of course, many of us, in situations where we’re kind of kind of managing hundreds or thousands of relationships, but also not doing so particularly well or in a realistic way. There’s been a lot of debate about whether this is kind of a hard limit, but I think we can all kind of have the sense that having that number of friends is not really like they’re not really friends, right. Realistically. Realistically, because not in the sense of our brain really tracking and having lots of interactions with them, but then tracking them and then this kind of playing out over a lifetime whether we have fewer friends now than we used to. I don’t know if there’s hard data on that, but it certainly seems to be the case, right? And it seems to be the case, and I think that’s particularly true for men. I mean, I’m sure you’re familiar with the book Bowling Alone, where if you look think back to the everybody belonged to bowling leagues. You had your own bowling ball. It was like but people were getting out there and they had friends, and they would hang out, and nobody does that anymore. The best you could do is get online and do virtual bowling.
Wes Moss [00:54:58]:
Virtual okay, so let’s go back to this concept of kind of a maximum amount of actual connections. I think you use the word tracking 120 or so. And then social media, that people have hundreds or thousands of LinkedIn or Facebook or whatever it may be. Has social media, do you think, been has it pushed down the number of actual people we’re friends with versus virtual friends?
Michael Platt [00:55:26]:
That’s a great question. I’m sure somebody knows the answer to that. You will often hear in the media, oh, the evidence is equivocal on whether social media is harmful. And the Surgeon General just came out again with another warning about social media and kids. I think the data is really clear on this, that the more time you spend on social media, especially as a kid, the worse it is for your mental health, particularly for young girls, because of the tendency to invite social and physical comparison. These apps are designed by people, scientists who have really good grasp of neuroscience. The algorithms are designed to be as addictive as possible. And I think that what happens then. First of all, what happens in a kid who’s growing up a digital native compared to you or me, is probably very different. So we didn’t grow up with cell phones in our hands. Wes grew up. If you wanted to talk to somebody, you had to go next door to knock on their door and go talk to them, right? Maybe pick up the phone. So that’s a very we our brains developed the capacity for real interactions, and we had to. But now kids are growing up. They are on a phone, maybe they’re texting, they’re emojiing back and forth. It’s a really reduced form of interaction and communication. It’s so impoverished that there’s a potential that the brain mechanisms, the pathways that we’ve talked about throughout this hour, that those pathways just don’t develop as fully. So you’ve got a couple of things going on. You’ve got an addictive stream like pressing a bar for cocaine, which in a rat, given that opportunity, they’ll do that to the extreme, where they won’t eat, they won’t drink. But now it’s for social comparison. It’s like, oh, I need to be more like that person. My life isn’t as glamorous. My body doesn’t look as good. So I think that those are a number of the forces that are really tearing at young people today as they kind of descend more deeply into social media addiction.
Wes Moss [00:57:38]:
So as we wrap up today, I think that because you understand this at such a deep level from a brain science or a neuroscience perspective, what is your take on let’s call it the challenges that we’ve talked about? And I think you say are really well agreed upon. That it’s tougher for males later in life to stay connected or find new connections. And then the epidemic of loneliness. I remember reading about the I think the UK had a commission or a government agency of loneliness. And now our Surgeon General is said that it’s a real epidemic. That plus aging in retirement, it’s harder to find people and connect with people. What is maybe just your advice or your takeaway on what Wes should be doing or somebody who’s and you’ve mentioned that you’re thinking about it, you’re only 56. But wait, you’re freaked out about wait a minute.
Michael Platt [00:58:36]:
I am thinking combat loneliness. Yeah, well, first of all, it all boils down to you got to get out there, you got to put yourself out there. I think that can be potentially harder in the kinds of communities that most people find themselves in. So if you’re living in the suburbs, let’s imagine you’ve done well, for example. So you’ve got a big house with a big plot of land and maybe there are no sidewalks even. So, there’s actually like physical barriers to you interacting with other people, making connections. So you have to drive somewhere to a meeting point. I think that’s a big challenge for a lot of people, which is it becomes so much more intentional and they have to be intentional about it. Oh, we’re going to go to a hiking meetup. We’re going to go to the coffee shop. That’s a good place to go. And just sort of strike up conversation. If you live in a city, it’s a very different experience because you walk out your door and then there’s people everywhere and you can walk one block and there’s multiple different opportunities to engage. And there is this kind of I don’t know how prevalent it is, but there is a movement for retirees to retire in cities to move. That can be expensive proposition. But those are communities that are really vibrant and where there are just a lot of people, and where there are a lot of people, it’s just a lot easier to meet people.
Wes Moss [01:00:06]:
Yeah. So it’s really the community making it easier for yourself to be in a place that socialization and meeting people is hard enough. If you live on a farm and ten minutes from the nearest town, everything becomes more difficult. From a social engagement, it’s much more intentional.
Michael Platt [01:00:24]:
Wes Moss [01:00:26]:
Maybe that’s the other thing, is that obviously there’s a real prevalence of these 55 plus communities.
Michael Platt [01:00:33]:
That’s true. I mean, that’s another way. I mean, I think that’s another way.
Wes Moss [01:00:36]:
I love to the thought that you mentioned that we are designed, again, to interact in three dimensions. And this even though I can tell, I’d like to go get a beer with you.
Michael Platt [01:00:47]:
Wes Moss [01:00:48]:
This is pretty good. It’s pretty good. But we are designed to do and that is based in science. You’re saying that that’s just not an opinion.
Michael Platt [01:00:57]:
When a baby first an infant, a newborn emerges from the womb, they have a preference to look at faces and to look at stimuli that have the right configuration of things that look like eyes in a mouth. You can take those in eyes and mouths and put them upside down or in. Different configurations. They won’t look at it. So you’re wired from birth to seek out faces? Okay, I don’t know. I can’t remember the attribution of this quote, but famous psychiatrist who said, we’re born looking for a face, not a screen. I think that kind of says it all.
Wes Moss [01:01:33]:
We’re born I’m writing this down. We’re born looking for a face, not a screen. I think we’re aging to leave it at that. Well, listen, Michael, thank you so much for this.
Mallory Boggs [01:01:42]:
Hey, y’all. This is Mallory with the retire Sooner team. Please be sure to rate and subscribe to this podcast and share it with a friend. If you have any questions, you can find us at wesmoss.com. You can also follow us on Instagram and YouTube. You’ll find us under the handle RetireSoonerPodcast. And now for our show’s. Disclosure this podcast is provided to you as a resource for informational purposes only and is not to be viewed as investment advice or recommendations. This information is being presented without consideration of the investment objectives, risk tolerance or financial circumstances of any specific investor and might not be suitable for all investors. It is not intended to and should not form a primary basis for any investment decision that you may make. Always consult your own legal, tax or investment advisor before making any investment or financial planning considerations. Please refer to the full disclosure in the podcast description for any additional information.
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