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Have You Herd?

By Mary Summerbell

As we live with techno-wizardry that has outpaced any other time in history, and seems to expand exponentially with every tick of the clock – taking us through a plugged-in, screen-focused, gadget-filled life each day – we have become accustomed to a world weirdly dependent on devices for almost every function of life, especially obtaining and exchanging information.

Considering all this electronic complexity we humans have achieved, it may be only with difficulty that we can think of ourselves anymore as animals – remind ourselves that we are, after all, mammals – just like dogs, and zebras and monkeys. In many ways subject to the same vagaries of animal nature as they are. And all our clever computers and smart phones and sophisticated satellites don’t, and won’t ever, let us escape our Homo Sapien label.

So what? Why bring it up? What in civilization is to be gained from even briefly pondering something as limiting and primitive as our animal nature? Isn’t it as outdated as the archaic times it came from, before we walked upright, or spoke, or discovered fire?

No. Not obsolete at all. It is, indeed, as relevant now as ever, because it is primary – elemental, basic, fundamental – to who we are. To deny it, or try to override it, or ignore it, is to discount our very identity. It is a deep, deep, deep – primordial, primeval, inextricable part of our human nature, evolved into our DNA for millenniums. So the less we resist it and the more we understand about it and accept it, the better we can use it to help us navigate life.

One very vital aspect of our nature, as mammals, is that we are herd animals. We are designed to be social – to have regular contact with others of our species. We are not meant to be alone. And yet that’s what many of us tend to do, despite, as well as because of, all our mighty gizmos. In our slick, uber-tech environment it’s too easy to slide into lonely lives of decreasing human contact – especially if we erroneously believe that technological contact is a true connection to another human being, when, in fact, it is not. Technology does not equal community.

There is merit in technology-based exchanges; some energy of personality and humanity come through. But it is minimal compared to real human closeness. Technology serves well as a supplement, as support for real relationships, when used to reinforce already established and developing connections. It can be a point of contact to help us bridge the little gaps of temporary and necessary separations in life, to help us metaphorically – but not literally – “keep in touch.” The trouble comes when techno relationships replace real ones, rather than helping to maintain and sustain them.

I once met a woman who was engaged to be married to a man she had never met, except online. After six months of emails, and a few phone calls, she bought her rings and made plans to meet this fellow, and be his bride. At the time I was shocked and appalled by what seemed, to me, a complete lack of common sense. Now I realize how prevalent it is for people to have Internet or Facebook relationships with little or no intention or expectation of ever meeting in person. I hear people brag about how many folks they’ve “friended” online – but they haven’t gone out of their house to socialize in months or years.

Not much different, I suppose, from years of letter writing and mail order brides of previous times. Or arranged marriages, then and now. People need to adapt – to do the best we can, with what we have – to survive. And technology, in any time, can be a boost to health and vitality. Social media can be a lifeline, especially to individuals with rather rare special interests or conditions. It allows physically distanced individuals to form communities that were previously impossible.

And technology offers much information previously accessible to very few. It also offers much misinformation. Technology is multifaceted, with as much potential to be harmful as beneficial – especially considering the often less-than-innocent intentions of those who create and utilize – sometimes weaponized – mass media. Technologies have hypnotic and addictive qualities, very knowingly and deceptively used by online predators. How are we to navigate this modern wilderness of high-tech beasts?

The more unaware we are of these elements, and their effects on us, the more likely we fall prey to them. The more conscious we are, the more we know about all aspects of our being, the more ability we have to avoid danger – to survive and thrive. That’s why it is so very, very, very important for us to learn as much as we can about our animal nature.

Our physical bodies – our central nervous systems and our mammalian brains – are hard-wired to require direct, consistent physical contact – real-life interaction – with other humans in order for us to live a healthy, balanced life. Clear, accumulated evidence supports this principle, with worldwide observations, through time, of the effects of minimal human contact on people of diverse ages and situations. Long-noted studies of touch deprivation in infants show obvious and shocking lack of growth in a wasting syndrome that can ultimately be fatal. Children in early development, especially orphans, are most vulnerable to long lasting effects of sustained neglect.

People who live alone or in institutions – sick, elderly, incarcerated – are extra susceptible to the devastation of diminished human connection. Solitary confinement has ever been used as the most severe punishment for criminals, as torture for traitors and enemies. So certain are we of the harmful effects of this separation that we can impassively calculate, mathematically, within minutes, when a prisoner will break down, once placed in isolation.

But forced isolation is very different from desired separation. And duration of any isolation is a big factor in possible harmful effects. We all need privacy and solitude. And being alone at times is as much of a necessity for people as is being with others. We all differ in nature as individuals as surely as we share DNA. Part of our journey is to find where we fit in, in a broad spectrum of healthy behaviors. It’s all about choice and balance and knowing yourself.

From stories, as from life experience, we learn that, universally, the worst punishment is to be shunned, to be rejected by society. To be physically excluded can literally mean death. To be ostracized by lack of acceptance is emotional and psychological death. Long have we known, and absolutely, that human contact is a necessity of human life and that extended isolation, whether forced or willingly risked, holds profound dangers for every one of us. No exceptions.

The dynamics of herding behavior and seasonal migration are still matters of biological mystery and speculation, but centuries of scientific and plain old practical observation have brought us to a wide acceptance of a number of reasons why animals travel together in groups of schools, flocks, herds, packs, hordes, swarms and masses.

The most obvious motivation is protection. The word “herd,” as a verb, first meant to “keep safe, shelter.” Logically, every individual animal, and the group itself, have a better chance of survival in the safety of congregation. A group is much more challenging for predators to attack than one animal, alone. And that’s why predators as well as prey often move in groups, as when a pack of wolves pursues a herd of sheep. Which brings us to hunting – another factor of herd behavior. Lone hunters have been known to catch more food, but they can’t protect it from other predators as well as a group of animals can.

Herding also helps in finding mates, with a pool of potential sweethearts in close proximity, rather than spread out to pursue over a wide area. Some animal groups, like lion prides and elephant herds, are more like harems, made mostly of females and young, with adult males on their own. Whether co-ed or segregated, herds help in raising young, as young females learn from older ones how to mother their babies.

Elephants have an especially endearing herding characteristic. Mothers take care of their own babies. But any adult female will also tend to any baby that wants or needs attention. So moms can rotate in and out to rest, while all the babies get uninterrupted care. Also, the babies, in constant proximity to so many attentive aunties, have nearly continuous skin-to skin contact for the first year or more of their lives.

We have much to learn from our mammal friends. Easy to see that shared effort and shared reward are of optimum benefit for all. Shared resources, then, may well be the best and greatest reason, the ultimate benefit of all animal gatherings.

And technology just can’t replace this kind of real community. Electronic communication doesn’t fulfill the requirements of human need. An email or text or tweet is not a conversation. These exchanges carry no life of individual voices inflected in personal variations of expression. A phone call is not the same as a face-to face conversation. There’s no eye contact with any of these activities. Eyes, windows of the soul – remember? And there are no gestures – no non-verbal communication, which is known to be the most of any message. Skyping, Facebook and other technologies with limited visual access still can’t replace the real thing – live, person to person, individual or group interaction. Actual physical contact.

Let’s take a lesson from the elephants. We don’t herd exactly as they do. And they don’t have our overwhelming technology to cope with. But we can be inspired by their tender example to learn, to know, what our personal relationship needs are, and to consider other people’s social needs in our daily activities. We can keep family and friends and neighbors around us close enough to reach, or call out to, when we need them – and respond kindly to their invitations and requests. We can see people, and be with them often enough to be of mutual comfort and support without imposing on each other. Together we can find the ways for everyone to feel included in the herd – that natural circle of mammalian love.

Text a friend, or cousin, or co-worker and ask them to meet you for coffee. Or tea. Or a beer.

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