How Humans Are Like Fungi

Question: What do you do on a day-to-day basis?

Nicholas\r\n Christakis: I’m a professor of medicine and professor of medical \r\nsociology at Harvard Medical School and a professor of sociology in the \r\nFaculty of Arts and Sciences and I do what I would call network science,\r\n so I, for the last ten years, have been studying how and why human \r\nbeings come to be embedded in social networks. Not the kind of online \r\nkind that people might think about all the time nowadays, but the kind \r\nof ancient kind that we have formed for hundreds of thousands of years. \r\nAnd I study how we humans come to form these very elaborate networks and\r\n what these networks come to mean for our lives, and the sort of the \r\nfield as it were of medical sociology is concerned with all sorts of \r\nphenomena, social processes and social phenomena that influence health \r\nand health care. But I’m focused primarily on I would say a subset of \r\nthat or not a subset, but a different field. Let’s say network science.

Question:\r\n What kind of research went into your book “Connected”? 

Nicholas\r\n Christakis: We have done work on the social, psychological, \r\nmathematical and biological rules that govern how human beings come to \r\nform social networks—the structure of networks—and then we’ve also \r\nexamined the kind of social and psychological rules or attributes of how\r\n social networks function. So how do we form social networks and how do \r\nthey affect our lives, and it’s what we would consider to be the anatomy\r\n and the physiology of a kind of human superorganism. In a very \r\nfundamental way we are like ants or actually kind of like fungi too, \r\nwhere individual human beings assemble themselves into these elaborate \r\ncomplex structures and we’re… James Fowler and I, my coauthor, are \r\ndeeply concerned with how and why we form these structures and what they\r\n mean for our lives. So in the book we present about… We talk a lot \r\nabout our own research, but we also pull in the research of many other \r\nscientists who have been looking at a variety of phenomena, and we talk \r\nabout the role of social networks in human emotions. We talk about the \r\nrole of social networks in human romantic and sexual behavior, in \r\nhealth, in politics and in economics, and then we also talk a little bit\r\n about the genetics of human social networks and the sort of modern \r\nonline variety of social interactions, and then we close with an \r\nargument in the book about why we form social networks and what in a \r\nvery deep sense they mean for our lives.

Recorded March 31, 2010
\r\nInterviewed by Austin Allen

The social networks we form add up to a giant "human superorganism."

Related Articles
Playlists
Keep reading Show less

Five foods that increase your psychological well-being

These five main food groups are important for your brain's health and likely to boost the production of feel-good chemicals.

Mind & Brain

We all know eating “healthy” food is good for our physical health and can decrease our risk of developing diabetes, cancer, obesity and heart disease. What is not as well known is that eating healthy food is also good for our mental health and can decrease our risk of depression and anxiety.

Keep reading Show less

For the 99%, the lines are getting blurry

Infographics show the classes and anxieties in the supposedly classless U.S. economy.

What is the middle class now, anyway? (JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)
Politics & Current Affairs

For those of us who follow politics, we’re used to commentators referring to the President’s low approval rating as a surprise given the U.S.'s “booming” economy. This seeming disconnect, however, should really prompt us to reconsider the measurements by which we assess the health of an economy. With a robust U.S. stock market and GDP and low unemployment figures, it’s easy to see why some think all is well. But looking at real U.S. wages, which have remained stagnant—and have, thus, in effect gone down given rising costs from inflation—a very different picture emerges. For the 1%, the economy is booming. For the rest of us, it’s hard to even know where we stand. A recent study by Porch (a home-improvement company) of blue-collar vs. white-collar workers shows how traditional categories are becoming less distinct—the study references "new-collar" workers, who require technical certifications but not college degrees. And a set of recent infographics from CreditLoan capturing the thoughts of America’s middle class as defined by the Pew Research Center shows how confused we are.

Keep reading Show less