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Molecular Biologist Elizabeth Blackburn was studying pond scum when she stumbled across an incredible discovery about human psychology that has a far-reaching impact well beyond the petri dishes in her laboratory.
As she peered through her microscope at the pond scum samples, Dr. Blackburn was stunned to observe a cell that did not age. This led to the discovery of something called a telomere.
Let’s go back to biology class: DNA is a self-replicating material that is present in all living organisms and contains our genetic code that resides within the cells of our bodies. A telomere is a small attachment on the end of our DNA. Everytime the DNA is copied, one little portion of the telomere is removed and the telomere tail gets shorter and shorter. This naturally-occurring action is part of the aging process.
Medical researchers were enamored by the discovery of telomeres, and so were psychologists. Psychologists wanted to know if stress could negatively impact telomere length, which would contribute to weakening our physical health. After studying the telomeres of mothers of severely chronically ill children, psychologists learned that stress did in fact result in shorter telomeres. But, they also identified several factors that counter-balanced the negative stress response. They learned that being part of a tight-knit community and having secure friendships could help to lessen exposure to toxic stress and actually keep the mothers’ telomeres longer for greater periods of time.
This research shows that being connected to other people—our family or our friends and neighbors who can be our “chosen” family—has a positive impact on our physical and emotional health. The desire to connect is one of the most basic human needs beginning at birth when a newborn seeks to connect with their caregivers. One of the first social actions toddlers make is seeking to create a joint experience with their caregiver by pointing at something that excites their attention so that their caregiver can also join in the excitement. Research shows that this connection through joint attention is critical for cognitive and developmental well-being for a lifetime.
So, what can we learn from Dr. Blackburn’s pond scum discovery? The lesson of the telomere is that we are built for connection—down to the very building blocks of our DNA.
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