Occasionally I come across something that is so profound that it illuminates how I think about a whole host of other things. The emerging science around the gut microbiome is an example. It seems like everywhere I turn there is more evidence that the variety and interactions of the bacteria in our intestines can affect everything from our mood to our risk of heart disease. It has re-ordered my thinking about health and wellness.
More recently, I read a book that has re-ordered my thinking about a lot of things, including health and wellness. The book is Connected by Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler. The central observation of the book is that we exist as social beings. We are all part of different networks of connected people, and the nature of those networks, and the people connected to us through them, have profound effects on each of us. You may have heard about some of the work that is summarized in the book, like the finding that if friends of our friends gain weight, we are more likely to do so as well, even if we don’t know those friends of friends, but that doesn’t begin to tell the story. Read the book. Or at least watch the TED talk which, when I checked, had been viewed over 1.1 million times.
Like the song sometimes gets stuck in one’s head, I now find it hard to avoid seeing “network” effects in all sorts of places. The one that prompted this post was a recent article in the New York Times about rising mortality associated with drug overdose. Specifically, it was this paragraph:
In fact, graphs of the drug overdose deaths look like those of deaths from a new infectious disease, said Jonathan Skinner, a Dartmouth economist. “It is like an infection model, diffusing out and catching more and more people,” he said.
In fact, in all likelihood, the resemblance is not coincidental. Instead, the spread is evidence of the strong influence of the underlying social networks to which these victims belong.
Being cognizant of these network effects has created, for me, a new lens through which to view such apparently disparate things as smoking cessation and presidential election politics. Even baseball! The bottom line is that each of us lives in a web of overlapping, interacting, profoundly important connections, and the nature of those connections, and the people to whom we are linked through them, shape our lives.
I think this is pretty cool stuff.
What do you think?