Thursday, August 28, 2014

The Hedgehog and the Human

Have you heard of the hedgehogs’ dilemma? The philosopher Schopenhauer wrote a parable about it more than a century ago. It went something like this: In the wintertime when the cold became almost unbearable, the hedgehogs tried to get close to each other, seeking to huddle together and share each others’ body heat. Unfortunately, as soon as they did, their spines pricked each other, which of course hurt and they recoiled. The cold however, drove them towards one other again but the same thing happened time and time again.  Eventually the hedgehogs learned that they were best off maintaining a little distance from each other – in their own space.

Freud quoted this parable in his explorations of human relationships, posing a number of questions including how much intimacy can we as humans actually endure? It’s a good question and one I think many of us grapple with at some time - I know I certainly have! It’s especially interesting –almost paradoxical– in light of the recent findings by neuro scientists that our brains are hard-wired to connect. In fact, the same circuitry that processes pain when we are not connecting (experiencing social rejection for example) is layered right on top of the circuits involved in physical pain. This isn’t surprising when we think of a baby’s need to connect with a parent or caregiver on whom the infant is completely dependent for food, water, shelter and safety. No connection, no survival!

But as we grow and become more able to take care of ourselves, we also experience rejection and loss, social pain as well as social pleasure – somewhat like the hedgehog. Curiously the brain’s circuitry that we use to navigate this, our social life and all relationships, is very different from the circuitry we use for problem solving and logical, coherent thinking. In fact, when one circuit is ‘switched on’ the other is in effect switched off. The more we function from a rational, practical or ‘sensible’ place, the less we are using our social antennae. The more we, for example, focus on solving a problem from a logical reasoning perspective, the more likely we are to distance ourselves from the other person or people around us (even those who could help us solve the problem!)  Conversely, the more we focus on relating to and communicating with others, the more we learn to understand how others might be feeling. Interestingly, we may also feel we are neglecting the ‘problems’ and even ‘wasting’ our time. A human dilemma, although maybe not as dramatic or black-and-white as the hedgehog’s :-) Good to be aware of, so we can better know ‘where we are coming from’ (and self-regulate if we decide it’s not appropriate!) Knowledge is power!