Modern society decoupled obtaining basic necessities from strong social relationships

The third way in which modern society has made it more difficult to maintain strong social relationships is that we’ve made it possible to get a job, earn money, and use that money for the basics (food, shelter, clothing…) without needing to have more than a superficial ability to interact with others. It makes sense that at least some people will choose to avoid “bad’ feelings like sadness, disappointment, guilt and shame. In society today, it’s entirely possible to live such a superficial life, meeting the bottom two levels of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs without truly having Love & Belonging, Self Esteem or Self Actualization.

I’m not saying the solution is to go back to our tribal roots. But it is something we all need to be aware of to ensure we have an emotionally healthy population. Surviving is much different than thriving. And in order to truly thrive, people need to learn how to have healthy social connections.

How social mobility impedes close relationships

The Bowlby conjecture states that we were designed to operate within a social network of about 150 individuals. And while there were changes to that group (births, deaths, the rare individual joining or leaving the tribe), it was overall stable. The relationships you made as a child were the same ones you had throughout your life. Your interactions with each person were strung together in an ‘infinite game” where there is always another encounter after the current one, and one after that, and so on.

Another name for this is the iterated prisoner’s dilemma (but I prefer the term “cooperation dilemma”). In our modern society, it is possible to uproot yourself and move to a new community severing ties with your old one, and no one really looks askance at that. It's common. But it enables people to never learn the emotional skills necessary to work through conflict and injuries, which is essential in building long-term healthy relationships.

In our ancestors’ world, the constraint of needing to be a member of a tribe to survive and thrive essentially forced everyone to work towards a resolution. Of course in extreme cases, the resolution might be banishment or death, but the vast majority of the time, it meant both sides shared, made amends, healed, got to closure, and moved on. Our social emotions exist for a very important reason: they bind the tribe together, and push us towards reconciliation when there is damage in the relationships.

Here’s why so many struggle with relationships in modern society

Relationships are the most important thing in your life.

As an introvert who has struggled with social anxiety, eye contact, and even things that “should” be easy like accepting a compliment, that's not an easy truth to accept. But studies like the one on Adult Development from Harvard, Murray and Peacock and the Blue Zones have shown it to be true. It’s a core piece to the Bowlby Conjecture. We are social animals so we are wired to need connection.

But if relationships are so important, why are they so hard? It shouldn’t be so difficult for an organism to maintain such a necessary function to survive, right?

The problem is our environment. It’s much different than the one bands of our modern hunter-gatherers ancestors lived in for 50,000 years.

There are three key factors—social network size, social mobility, and ability to meet basic needs (the lower levels of the Maslow hierarchy). I’ll focus on the first in this post.

Robin Dunbar’s research shows that our brains are designed to be able to maintain about 150 social connections. Let 𝓡 be the total amount of relationship energy any one person has to invest. In the environment in which we evolved, it would look something like this, where more intimate relationships get more energy than weaker ones.

Dunbar's distribution EEA

But in modern society, we have a lot more that 150 relationships to manage. Our brains simply aren’t designed for this. We only have so much 𝓡 to distribute, so by investing in longer tail relationships, we necessarily have to reduce the investment in more intimate ones.

Dunbar's distribution modern

It’s common for the most intimate relationships to suffer the most, especially for people who haven’t learned the deepest relationship skills for what it takes to truly be compassionate, vulnerable, and non-judgemental.

I’ll cover the other two points in subsequent posts. But short answer is if you struggle with your relationships, you are not alone. It has a lot to do with your environment.

Why (almost) everything born from civilization is irrelevant to thrive—a thought experiment

One of the core tenets of the Bowlby Conjecture is that we are essentially unchanged genetically and physiologically from our modern ancestors 50,000 years ago.

Anyone who says that something we’ve invented in the intervening 50,000 is essential for living a full life is necessarily implying that it was impossible for any of our ancestors—all the way back to the beginning—to live a full life. They had everything they needed, except this one thing that as luck would have it was only just invented.

But that flies in the fact of what we know about evolution. Evolution tells us that organisms are designed to be an optimal fit for their environment. It also makes no logical sense for evolution to create an organism who is imperfectly suited to the environment, and that imperfection must survive 3,000 generations before the need is satisfied throughhy good luck and ingenuity of some hypothetical force in the future.

I admit there are some things in modern civilization that make life easier and let us lead healthier lives (modern medicine being a notable area). But anything we deem a “necessity” that was not also a necessity 50,000 years ago is solving a problem that we created with our civilization.

So what does matter? By elimination, those things that were prevalent in our ancestors’ environment 50,000 years ago. Tribe; sunlight and nature; moving the body naturally during hunting and gathering; whole, natural, cooked foods; shared stories to strengthen social bonds; and deeply dark and deeply quiet nights for truly restful sleep. Any individual who has all of these things in their life has everything they need to thrive.

SIDS in infants reduced by sharing room with parents, despite what alleged pediatric sleep expert at Yale opines

Last week, I attended an online talk by Dr. Bruce Perry—psychiatrist and child trauma expert—hosted by CASEL entitled Return to School during COVID 19: Helping Children and Families Manage Stress and Build Resilience. (If you haven’t read The Boy Who Was Raised a Dog, I highly recommend it. The stories are so moving, you will cry at least once. And the last chapter is an absolutely brilliant summary of the solutions and impediments we face in our society.) It was an excellent talk, and if I can find a link to the archive, I will post it here.

At one point when he was mentioning the effects of childhood trauma on the ability for school kids to focus and learn, my mind wandered to infancy and the sorts of trauma an infant might encounter. I realized that being separated from their parents—with all the appearances of abandonment—could be one of the most stressful things an infant could experience. And this is exactly what many of us do in the industrialized world by giving kids their own room/nursery and putting them down to sleep for the night there, even when they are quite young.

I want to be clear that I do not blame anyone who is doing (or has done) this. It is the socially acceptable way to raise children in our society. But it is in many ways completely counter to the way that our ancestors—even those not many generations removed from us—raised their babies. The concept of having private rooms for every member of the family is quite new, and was certainly not available to the vast majority of people until very recently. It makes complete sense that our genes which have been honed over tens of millions of years and hundreds of thousands of generations have been honed to crave connection with parents and alloparents. And individuals that were denied that connection—even in what we rational adults would recognize as completely safe environments—could be easily interpreted by the child as abandonment thus triggering anxiety and fear and elevating stress levels which negatively impacts the ability to not only sleep but to do other things that a stress-free state would require: digestion, growth, ongoing maintenance and repair…

I decided to do a bit of research to see if the connection between separation anxiety and adverse health responses had been documented in research. Lo and behold I found a 2016 study published by the American Academy of Pediatrics found a 50% reduction in SIDS for infants who room shared—that is, slept in the same room as the parents, but importantly not in the parents’ bed (because that can lead to suffocation).

Disturbingly the second search result for SIDS room sharing was a blog post penned by Dr. Craig Canapari, ostensibly a pediatric sleep expert at Yale University and Director of the Pediatric Sleep Center. (I will not link to the post as I do not want to give any additional weight to it in search results.) The title of this 2017 blog post is “Why Room Sharing in Infancy Isn't Necessary for Safe Sleep.” This was quite eye-opening as the research paper’s conclusion ran counter to this assertion.

Reading the post, it’s pretty clear Dr. Canapari is unimpressed with the research. He has a few paragraphs of intro, but then gets right into sowing fear, uncertainty and doubt: “…[T]he new recommendation [is] that parents room share—but not bed share—for AT LEAST six months, and ideally up to one year of age, claiming that this could reduce the risk of babies dying in their sleep by ‘up to 50%’. Let that sink in for a minute. The American Academy of Pediatrics said that if you have your baby in his own room, he is twice as likely to die. Does that freak you out? It would freak me out.” So the good doctor has an emotional reaction to the results of a scientific paper and feels the need to regurgitate that onto his readers.

It doesn’t get any better. The entire piece is 1,376 words long. 9% (122 words) is devoted to the intro. 5% (68 words) is devoted to “What’s good about room sharing”—and that includes those five words which are the title of that brief section. The conclusion section comprises 19% (260 words), and it is also cast in the language of FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt—I’m worried…, I’m concerned…, I believe that sleeping in separate rooms is safe…). The remaining 67% is dedicated to three sections poking holes in the study results: The Problems with Room Sharing, The Problems with the Room Sharing Recommendation, Room sharing may be associated with decreased sleep and increased risk to babies. That last section is about another paper on a similar topic that looked at different things. You are excused if you might have been led to believe that these data all come from one study; the author seems to have no problem conflating the findings from these two studies, slipping the second one in close to the end, pointing out the incongruences and throwing up his hands and saying, I can't figure this out.¯\_(ツ)_/¯ 

In that second study, you know where that “increased risk to babies” comes from? an independent variable that just so happened to be correlated with room sharing: “Room sharing infants were twice as likely to have an unapproved soft object on their sleep surface.” All that tells me is that there is more education that needs to be done for all parents—whether or not they room share—about things not to put in with their sleeping baby. It really seems as if Dr. Canapari is eager to throw out the baby with the bathwater.

I won’t let the authors of the second paper off the hook here. Their conclusion is overly conservative, but I can understand why—for liability reasons—they would err on the side of caution. Still, their concerns are for the 6–12 month range, and cite “poorer sleep-related outcomes and more unsafe sleep practices”. But these factors are not tied together. Clearly there needs to be a study done, but my hypothesis is that if parents who engage in room sharing also are taught and comply with all other safe sleep best practices, I strongly suspect room sharing with be shown to be at worst neutral and more likely a positive regarding SIDS.

 A few more entries down on those search results is this post from Wise Mommies, which I find to be a much more fair and balanced view of the room sharing/SIDS connection.

So why am I writing this? Because I believe Dr. Canapari’s blog post quite literally endangers infants. Harried new parents—who are no doubt struggling to do everything they need to while trying to figure out parenting best practices—are wont to Google something like SIDS room sharing, see Room Sharing in Infancy Isn't Necessary for Safe Sleep as advice from a Yale pediatric sleep expert and move on with their life. Even if they do click through and read, they are going to be overwhelmed by so much FUD and a view from nowhere, that most will again just conclude that it’s not a clear win. It will dissuade them from even doing any further exploration on the subject. And that is a travesty.

We humans and all of our primate ancestors have been sleeping in the same space as our infants for tens if not hundreds of millions of years. Yes, they had alloparents to help them out to minimize sleep deprivation. And they didn’t have access to all of this plastic and cloth from China which can do more harm than good for infants, especially during sleep. But let’s not conflate these issues. If we really had been designed to sleep separated from our offspring, you would see primates in nature and indigenous tribes doing it. I for one am siding with a hundred million years of evolution on this one.

SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome) cut in half by simply letting your baby sleep with you

Aligned with the Bowlby Conjecture, new parents should absolutely be sharing a room with their newborns and infants. That is what humans and other primates have been doing for tens of millions of years, and that is what our genetic programming expects. Infants who know that their parents aren't in the immediate vicinity can very easily interpret that as abandonment, which elevates stress levels and leads to increased risk of… well every bad health outcome, especially when the stress is chronic.

Room Sharing Prevents SIDS by 50%

The antimatter rule: Never judge anyone.

The antimatter rule: Never judge anyone.

And anyone includes yourself.

Laziness Does Not Exist is a simply brilliant article that truly embodies the antimatter rule.

A more universal statement of this rule is simply: Minimize judgements.



The golden rule: Treat others as you would like others to treat you.

The platinum rule: Treat others as they would like to be treated.



Why antimatter? Because it is the most valuable substance in the universe. Gold costs ~$100/gram. Platinum is about ⅓–⅔ that (~$30–70/gram). Antimatter is estimated to cost ~$25 billion/gram. The next most expensive substance is a thousand times cheaper: Californium at $27 million/gram.

What the Dunbar Number means for your healthy social interactions

The Dunbar Number states that we can really only maintain up to 150 people in our personal network. But there are other just as important implications of Dunbar’s work. I think this infographic from Boston University illustrates it nicely. A person with healthy relationships necessarily has them at various levels of intimacy. There can only ever be a handful (up to 5) in their closest circle (the support clique).

When we talk about accepting and embracing your emotions and connecting with a compassionate person about them in order to process them and let them go, it is primarily with the support clique (and to a lesser extent the support group) that this is done. Being open emotionally doesn't mean that you are open equally with everyone. It's not an all or nothing situation (pro tip: It so very rarely ever is).

[Also see my post on the Dunbar Donut]

image from