What makes creative relationships work? How do two people—who may be perfectly capable and talented on their own—explode into innovation, discovery, and brilliance when working together? On one level, these are obvious questions. Collaboration yields so much of what is novel, useful, and beautiful, and it’s natural to try to understand it. On another level, looking at achievement through relationships is a new, and even radical, idea. For hundreds of years, science and culture have focused on the self. We talk of self-expression, self-realization. Popular culture celebrates the hero. Schools test intelligence and learning through solo exams. Biographies shape our view of history.
This pervasive belief in individualism can be traced to the beginning of modernity, and the philosophical tradition most forcefully articulated by René Descartes. “Each self inhabits its own subjective realm,” Descartes declared, “and its mental life has an integrity prior to and independent of its interaction with other people.” Though Descartes had his challengers, his idea became a core assumption of the Enlightenment, as did Thomas Hobbes’ notion that the natural state of man was “solitary” (as well as “poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”)
Following this line, the first modern psychologists focused on the individual alone. Emil Kraepelin, the godfather of biological psychiatry, looked for organic explanations of illness. Despite Sigmund Freud’s interest in early-life relationships, he treated his patients by having them speak into silence and saw cure as a reconciliation of internal conflicts.
Beyond illness, the fundamentals of healthy life took root from the idea of the atomized person. Jean Piaget, who created modern development theory—the system of thought about how children’s minds work and grow—emphasized relationships to objects, not people. Even the most basic aspect of our relation with others—the way we speak—was shaped by individualism, according to Noam Chomsky’s ideas of language as an expression of inborn, internal capacities.
This focus on the self meshed tightly with Western ideology—the Ayn Randian notion of the rugged man forging his destiny on the forbidding plains. (A 1991 Library of Congress survey found Rand’s Atlas Shruggedsecond only to the Bible as the book that made the most difference in American readers’ lives.) The triumphant Western position in the Cold War made individual liberty and individual choice the root unit of society—in opposition to the Marxist emphasis on collective achievement.
The ultimate triumph of the idea of individualism is that it’s not really seen as an idea at all. It has seeped into our mental groundwater. Basic descriptions of inter-relatedness—enabling, co-dependency—have been made into headlines for dysfunction. Meanwhile, the Oxford American Dictionary defines individualism as, first, “the habit or principle of being independent and self-reliant” and, second, as “a social theory favoring freedom of action for individuals over collective or state control.” This lopsided contrast of “freedom” vs. “control” is telling. Even our fundamental unit of meaning, the dictionary, tilts in favor of the self.
If traditional physical and social science has lionized the individual, a new body of research has begun to show how growth and achievement actually emerge from relationships. The new science begins with infancy. For centuries, babies were seen as blank slates who did nothing more than fill their stomachs, empty their bowels and bladders, and cry and sleep in between. To the extent that anything significant happened, kids were seen as passive receivers. (And largely insensitive ones: For most of the 20th century, doctors routinely operated on babies without anesthesia, believing them exempt from pain.)
But a burgeoning field has shown that, from the very first days of life, relationships shape our experience, our character, even our biology. This research, which has flowered in the last ten years, took root in the 1970s. One reason, explains the psychologist and philosopher Alison Gopnik, was the advent of the simple video camera. It allowed researchers to easily capture and analyze the exchanges between babies and their caregivers. In a video of 4-month-olds with their mothers, for example, the two mimic each other’s facial expressions and amplify them. So, a baby’s grin elicits a mother’s smile, which leads the baby to a full-on expression of joy—round mouth, big eyes. This in turn affects the mother, and so on in a continuous exchange that entwines the pair.
It’s common sense that babies and mothers affect each other. But when you stop the tape and look at it frame by frame—as the researcher Beatrice Beebe and her team did in the above experiment—you see how remarkably fast this exchange takes place, down to fractions of second. It’s not that a baby waits for stimulus from her mother and responds in kind. Actually, as the psychologist Susan Vaughan puts it, “both parties are processing an ongoing stream of stimuli and responding while the stimulation is still occurring.” Another study of 2-day-old babies found similar results.
These experiments are just small pieces of evidence that show, according to Vaughan, that emotions are “peopled” from the start. And this dynamic turns out to play a critical role in the development of neural circuits that shape not only interaction, but autonomy too. In other words, the way we experience ourselves is inextricably linked to the way we experience others—so much so that, on close view, it becomes quite hard to draw a concrete distinction between the other and the self.
The sensational science of “mirror neurons” helped further dissolve this distinction. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, a team of Italian researchers discovered that certain neurons that fire during actions by macaque monkeys—when they pick up a peanut, for example—also fire when they watch someone else pick up the peanut. It’s probably overblown to say—as many have—that this concrete phenomenon can explain everything from empathy and altruism to the evolution of human culture. But the important point is that our brains, down to the level of neurons, register individual and social experience in tandem.
Mirror neurons are just one brick in the broad and widening foundation of “social neuroscience.” John Cacioppo, who named the field with his colleague Gary Berntsen, has helped pioneer research that shows how social connection shapes everything from depression and anxiety to high blood pressure, obesity, and heart disease.
Drawing on evolutionary psychology, cognitive experiments, and brain scans, Cacioppo and his colleagues make a persuasive case that what we consider the “self” is in its essence social. “It sounds like an oxymoron,” Cacioppo says. “But it’s not. In fact, the idea that the center of our psychological universe, and even our physiological experience, is ‘me’—this just fundamentally misrepresents us as a species.”
It’s not an accident that this new work is ascendant at a time when the Western world no longer identifies itself in opposition to collectivism, and where the Internet and social media have offered an obvious metaphor for webs of connections. “We’re ready for a Copernican revolution in psychology,” Cacioppo says. If it comes, the era of the self will yield to something that may be much more interesting.
Later this week: The Myth of the Lone Genius and 1 + 1 = Infinity. Like Slate on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.