A hundred years ago in the United States, most people shared small living quarters with only a few rooms, and family members were constantly interacting with each other. This was still true at mid-century when millions of families moved out of the cities into single-family houses during the great suburban migration that followed World War II.

Though these new suburban houses had as many as five or six rooms, the overall size of the houses was small and everyone was still within “talking distance” of each other. Most families had only one phone that was invariably located in a central, public spot, so everybody in the household knew the weekend plans of the teenaged children. There was only one bathroom, so the household also had plenty of contact in the morning before everyone scattered for school and work.

Over the last 25 years, however, houses have gotten larger and larger. As a consequence, the constant family interactions that occurred in the past are not necessarily a central part of family life. The kitchen, living and dining spaces that were separate rooms are now merged into one space, which creates the opportunity for plenty of contact. But, the bigger houses also have plenty of other places for family members to spend time.

For example, most new houses today feature a capacious master suite that is often large enough to be characterized as a house within a house, or, as some wags have suggested, a McMansion within a McMansion. The master suite usually includes a sitting area for television viewing or computer work as well as the occasional fireplace and kitchenette. The kids are off in their own bedrooms, often with their own attached bathroom and their own television and computer. After dinner, the family scatters. In many households, a family dinner is a rare event.

While some privacy, time for solitude and a space you can call your own is a good thing, spending time with family members is essential to the welfare of the household, and in the grand scheme of things, for society as well.

Why is this?

The astute observer would say that the thousands of interactions between parents and their children teach the children how to get along with other people, which is absolutely essential for a civil society. The interactions between the adults of the household help them to sustain their relationship as they face the numerous challenges to raising children.

But the need for face time between family members so that children can learn important life skills is even more fundamental than this. From an evolutionary perspective, “We’ve evolved to be social beings and the survival of our species depends on getting along with other people,” said Stephanie Brown, a social psychologist at the University of Michigan. Compared to other mammals such as wolves and chimpanzees, humans are weak. To compensate for lack of brawn and superior size we developed bigger brains and a complex system of interdependence that is unique. Our offspring require years of care that is generally shared by parents and other caring adults before reaching adulthood. Once grown, we still need constant interaction with other adults to sustain ourselves both emotionally and physically. In short, Brown said, “Our relationships are like the air we breathe. They’re the thing that enables our species to survive.”

From a scientific perspective, neuroscience research into the neurological and hormonal underpinnings of our familial relationships has also shown that frequent interactions among household members are crucial. Interaction does not mean constant yakking, however.

“Near proximity counts far more than we realize consciously,” said psychologist Dan Goleman, the author of “Emotional Intelligence” and “Social Intelligence.”

When we chitchat, as comedian Jerry Seinfeld might say “about nothing,” or say nothing at all, our brains are busy communicating with each other. As Goleman explained it, our brains have a set of circuits “designed” to interact with the identical circuits of the person we are talking to. These mirror neurons “scan” what the person you’re with is talking about and how he is moving. Then they activate the same areas in your brain so that you are literally on the same wavelength.

The circuitry takes years to develop, however. When we’re born, we’re not hardwired.

“We’re not programmed for social behavior like a fish whose brain is fully mature at birth,” said Peter Whybrow, a psychiatrist, director of the Semel Institute for Neuroscience at UCLA, and the author of “American Mania.” Instead, we have to learn the complex social behaviors that we need to be comfortable later in life from the adults who raise us. The neural circuitry of our frontal cortex, which is the major thought and decision-making area of the brain, is literally developed and shaped by the thousands of one-on-one interactions between a parent or other caring adult and a child, as well as the interactions between other people that a child observes.

The more verbal interactions a child participates in or observes, the more the brain develops. This will happen naturally when family members are in the same space. Not only are their interactions richer, “its’ terrific for brain development,” Goleman said.

As a child’s developing neural circuitry becomes increasingly more complex, he gradually learns to navigate his world by walking, talking and the less obvious but equally profound ability to think. This leads to the slowly dawning realization that he’s not the center of his universe and, from about the age of 5 to 15, the gradual development of empathy, the conscious awareness of other people’s thoughts and emotions, the critical skill for getting along with others, Whybrow said.

Upon reaching maturity, a child is able to live independently. But humans still need the ongoing presence of other people in their lives because in adulthood we are bound together by the hormones that begin to function during adolescence and affect our brains and our behavior for the rest of our lives. 

Some of these hormones are sexual and lead to mating, reproduction and the perpetration of the species. Less well known, but equally critical, are the “bonding” hormone oxytocin and the “danger-alert” hormone cortisol.

Anytime you are with people you are close to and trust, your brain releases oxytocin. This reinforces the brain’s bonding circuits and you feel calmer, explained Louann Brizendine, a professor of psychiatry at the University of California in San Francisco and the author of “The Female Brain.” When teenaged girlfriends chatter endlessly, they literally feel better because oxytocin is surging in their brains, she said.

To get the benefits of oxytocin’s calming effect and what Brizendine calls “body time,” however, “you have to be in the same place, see and sense the other person, and breathe the same air,” she said.

With small children, body time means “floor time” because you have to be at their level to interact face-to-face and eye-to-eye, Brizendine said. As you roll around and play or sit quietly and read together, there’s plenty of body contact that increases the amount of oxytocin released in your brain. With somewhat older children, there’s still plenty of calming body contact for the parents. But once kids hit adolescence, body time means being in the same room because “they won’t let you touch them,” Brizendine said, adding that teens themselves want body time with their parents, though most would never admit it.

Oxytocin has huge health benefits, Brizendine went on to say. It’s as essential to the human brain and body as taking vitamins, and humans suffer isolation and depression without it. Equally important, the calming effects of oxytocin reduce and counteract the effects of cortisol, which our bodies produce more often than we think in the course of our often-stressful lives and whose ill effects are not appreciated by the general public. “Chronic stress and no down time is known to produce enough cortisol over time to damage those areas of the brain that affect our memory,” Brizendine said.

Moving on from neuroscience, there is yet another reason for spending time with family and close friends, and one that has been appreciated since time immemorial, Whybrow said. Close and trusting relationships are wonderfully enriching because people are “infinitely variable and you will never figure out another person completely. No matter how long you’ve known them, they can still surprise you.”

Questions or queries? Katherine Salant can be contacted at www.katherinesalant.com.

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