I've written recently about the continuing rise in the number of people suffering from depression, how I believe this is linked to great changes in our society over the past 50 years, and that neuroscience is revealing how complex the human brain is - in many ways we are only in the infancy of our understanding about how our minds work.
I've also suggested psychological good health is linked to physical interactions with other human beings in the real world. Face to face chats, a good old giggle and lots of warm, loving hugs, do seem to protect people from the affects of stress and anxiety which lead ultimately to depression.
But when was the last time someone gave you a really good, warm, genuine hug, where you could actually sense your brain releasing oxytocin? Oxytocin is commonly known as the love drug; it's particularly associated with breastfeeding and lovemaking, but we also release it when we get a cuddle and even from holding someone's hand. It's an incredibly powerful hormone designed to aid human bonding, and is at least one of the factors which led to humans being such a successful species. As much as we might be driven by our selfish genes, most of us also feel a deep need to connect with fellow human beings and to live in social groups, with few people functioning well in complete isolation.
This powerful, unconscious need to connect with other people has been one of the reasons the internet has been such a phenomenal success. You walk around any town now, or you sit in a coffee shop or on the bus or train, and all around you there will be people connecting with friends, via social media. And yet if you interrupt them to ask if the seat next to them is taken, they're quite likely to answer with just one or two words.
It's the illusion of being connected though and for many, those remote, online relationships do ultimately leave them feeling unsatisfied, even with Skype, even with cybersex or sex-texting and all manner of other strange things people get up to in their desperation to feel close to other human beings. As far as I know, the brain doesn't release oxytocin when you tap plastic buttons with your fingertips.
With the number of people suffering from depression, anxiety, loneliness and stress, I think we have to address the emotional needs not being met by our society these days. We should be encouraging people to get out in their communities and get in touch with likeminded locals and physically interact in the real world, and perhaps even put their iPhone in their pocket for half an hour, to chat to that person opposite drinking their coffee?