The basic unit of human relationship is the pair

Posting has been light (ie, nonexistent) because I’ve been preparing for/been at a conference.  While I was gone, I read the book Escape From Camp 14, about someone who not only was born and raised in a North Korean political prison, but also managed to escape from it.  Not only was the story interesting, but there was a lot of good stuff in it relating to how the human brain interacts with the environment.  Take this:

“It was in the pairs that the prisoners kept alive the semblance of humanity,” concluded Elmer Luchterhand, a sociologist at Yale who interviewed fifty-two concentration camp survivors shortly after liberation.

Pairs stole food and clothing for each other, exchanged small gifts, and planned for the future.  If one member of a pair fainted from hunger in front of an SS officer, the other would prop him up.

“Survival … could only be a social achievement, not an individual accident,” wrote Eugene Weinstock, a Belgian resistance fighter and Hungarian-born Jew who was sent to Buchenwald in 1943.

The death of one pair often doomed the other.  Women who knew Anne Frank in the Bergen-Belsen camp said that neither hunger nor typhus killed the young girl who would become the most famous diarist of the Nazi era.  Rather, they said, she lost the will to live after the death of her sister, Margot.

There was a bit more to the quote, but the book has already been returned to the library and I only have Google Books to quote from.  The point here is that the pair-bond seems to be the basic unit of human relationship.  This shouldn’t be too surprising; humans are generally monogamous on the order of a few years at a time.  But this pair-bonding isn’t solely romantic, but also extends to friendships.  What we know about pair-bonding comes primarily from work on prairie voles who are a uniquely monogamous species of vole.  This monogamy (or should I say, “monogamy”) connect to the neurohormone oxytocin.  Oxytocin seems to stimulate pair-bonding and social recognition.  It unfortunately gets a lot of press as the ‘love hormone’, even though it can have some darker effects.

Escapees from North Korea also seem to share certain personality traits that make it hard for them to prosper as refugees: they have a hard time holding down a job, they refuse to take personal responsibility for their actions, they are exceedingly suspicious of others, etc.  Not too surprising, obviously.  But taken together this illustrates certain facts about how the brain interacts with the environment to create personality: some things are hardwired in pretty solidly, like pair-bonding.  Others are plastic and interact with the environment, albeit in stereotyped ways.  In order to fully understand the brain, we will have to understand how interactions with the environment create neural mechanisms – the neuroscience of ecology.