Neuroscientist Mariano Sigman: ‘Loneliness is toxic. Having someone to talk to is tremendously important for our health’

In his book ‘The Power of Words,’ the researcher reviews the science behind the extraordinary capacity of conversation and how to have a fruitful dialogue

Mariano Sigman
Neuroscientist Mariano Sigman during the interview in Madrid.MOEH ATITAR
Javier Salas

Neuroscientist Mariano Sigman says that there’s a joke that perfectly encapsulates many of today’s social problems: A driver has a flat tire and decides to go to a nearby house to ask for a jack to change it. He imagines that he will bother the neighbor, that the neighbor will be rude and won’t want to help him. And when he gets there and the neighbor politely opens the door, the driver – who has been getting angry by himself – tells him: “Shove it where the sun don’t shine.” “You don’t know the other person, and you project all kinds of prejudices onto them. If your disposition is toxic, you’re going to hate them. Many times, we miss an opportunity to talk to another person because we have fallen into a pit of prejudice; a conversation will never work if you don’t give it a chance,” explains Sigman, who recently published The Power of Words, a great treatise in defense of dialogue based on scientific evidence.

Sigman, who fled Argentina after the military coup with his family at the age of three and grew up in Barcelona, now lives in Madrid, where he has become the subject of his own experiments. The most recent one: the 49-year-old scientist, who says he’s “totally inept” at rhythm and harmony, learned to play music and released an album at the age of 47 in order to prove that the brain can change, even at a later age. In his book, Sigman argues that words, and how we use them, can solve social problems and improve people’s lives. But dialogue only works under the right conditions. Below, he discusses what makes for a healthy conversation and why it’s important.

Question. In your book, you say that people are like amphibians in that we live in both reality and fiction. Is conversation healthy because it takes us out of the subjective fiction that we have created for ourselves?

Answer. It’s the narrative one constructs about things for oneself. Let’s say you and I go to see the same movie and we each have a different story about what we have seen, which can completely change our emotions. For you, it caused a lot of anguish, but for me it was a comedy. And then if we get together to talk about it, seeing your point of view nourishes me and gives me a perspective that I didn’t have before.

Q. The book vindicates dialogue, but the main problem is that we think that conversation doesn’t work. The first step is convincing people to sit down and talk, because it works.

A. I don’t mean to suggest in any way that “if you want something and you desire it, you’re going to get it.” But the opposite is true: if you convince yourself that something is impossible, then there is no way it is going to happen. When you convince yourself that something is possible, you have simply opened a door. Then, you must work and put in a lot of effort to make it happen. But we censor ourselves all the time. We tell ourselves that it’s impossible to talk to Juan, or Pedro, or Ana, because it’s not going to do any good. That’s what happens in political conversation. I want to tell people that there’s a lot of science [on the subject]. Because people imagine that science is all telescopes and microscopes, but there are scientists working on the Israel–Palestine border. Their work is to bring together two people who do not understand each other and to figure out what the best way for them to meet is. And you find out that it’s not as difficult as it seems. The starting point is to create a willingness to sit down and talk, knowing that the other person is not stupid or a fanatic, and that he/she can change. Because if you have all those [negative] beliefs, there’s no way the conversation will work.

Q. That’s where the figure of the mediator that you’ve found in your experiments comes in, a mediator who can get even adversaries to agree.

Researcher Mariano Sigman.
Researcher Mariano Sigman.MOEH ATITAR

A. This figure of the mediator, like a good soccer referee, brings the two captains together and tells them: let’s play, let’s have a good time, because this is a game; it’s not a war. This is very clear and widely known in political conversation, but to me it’s even more crucial in other much more common conversations, where we do not realize that the same thing is happening. It’s the conversation between a father and a son, between a mother and a daughter, or even between couples, where there are also many gaps. What is the problem with these conversations? Sometimes there are such different perspectives that it’s difficult to understand, to accommodate the other person’s reality, as is often the case when there’s a generation gap… Think of the mentality of a child who, when he tastes something he doesn’t like, spits it out immediately. As adults, we become more open to different flavors, but with conversation, it’s the other way around. We’re much more closed off to anything that challenges us. We have to change that disposition, and science shows us that if we do change it, we are going to be in a much better place. It’s a very powerful tool, it’s not rocket science; it’s very simple, but it’s very powerful.

Q. But not just any dialogue will do. You must create specific spaces where it does work, and we are always highlighting the spaces where it doesn’t, such as social media.

A. We have known how to have face-to-face conversation for many centuries; it’s a human skill, like walking. But then new tasks appear, such as WhatsApp group chats, which are an example of failed conversation. We respond and say things that nobody would say if we were talking face to face. But that’s understandable because we’ve been using WhatsApp for six or seven years, and we’ve been talking face-to-face for ages. WhatsApp is a place where many people talk at the same time; nobody has taught us how to converse there.

Q. And what are the conditions where conversation does work?

A. Number one, talking to just a few people at once. It’s very simple, but you can’t talk to 500 people at the same time; you can’t solve a problem in your life with 850 people. It’s as simple as that, speak with three or four people at a time.

Q. Assemblies are going the way of the dinosaur...

A. Assemblies are a space for taking the community’s temperature, and they are fine. But if you want to decide something in your company, you don’t say: okay, perfect, we’ll bring together 70,000 people to make the decision. No, that doesn’t work. A conversation is a place in which everyone has the right to speak, and everyone has the right to listen. If there are 700 people, it’s just a space for monologues.

Q. The first condition for a good conversation is to talk to just a few people at once. What’s the second condition?

A. A good disposition is key. Go into a conversation to enjoy what you may learn, go in wanting to be surprised. Enter a dialogue with curiosity and the desire to discover something. The opposite of that is going into a conversation to try to convince someone of something, to reject…anything that is different. A conversation like that isn’t useful, it doesn’t lead anywhere.

Q. What else?

A. We have certain resources that protect us from the traps we fall into. Humor is one of them; it’s very valuable and healthy. It has, and has always had, a function in human communication, which is to be able to get through difficult things: laughing is a way to be able to think about something together without it becoming a major drama. Humor is a tool; it’s a device for having an open conversation about difficult topics. Another tool is using the third person to talk about things. If you are told about a couple who has a problem, it seems like something commonplace, but when it affects you, it seems like the end of the world. Many times, we need to gain perspective just to be able to have a good conversation about very difficult things.

Q. Eric Klinenberg’s book Palaces for the People warns about the disappearance of places where the community gathers to create that social fabric. Are those spaces where conversation happens being lost?

A. Yes, that’s very important. The Greeks discovered that they had to retreat to a place with ideal conditions, good music, good food, good drink, and good people. The magic happens immediately with those things. What’s the opposite of that? Twitter. Those spaces for mingling, like the public school, the cafe and the tavern, are critical and, indeed, we may be losing them. And with the loss of those spaces, we would be losing the value of bringing people who have different perspectives on things together to meet in a congenial place rather than a confrontational one. That’s been a huge driver of social progress and human progress. Everything we do, we do to have good conversations, it’s essential to the human condition.

Q. Humans are not just social animals but conversational animals.

A. Yes, that’s why social media works. You’ve been to a place, but you feel like you haven’t been there if you can’t tell the rest of the world about it. Things make sense and become real, not after you’ve done them, but as soon as you can tell other people about them.

Q. You also talk about the importance of words. For example, one study showed that when Israelis and Palestinians sit down to talk, they don’t mean the same thing when they talk about “peace.”

A. That’s a fundamental problem of human communication; it’s called the granularity of words. An infinite number of things happen to us, but we have very few words with which to talk about them. And many times, people can’t agree because we’re using the words incorrectly. When you go to the doctor and you are sick, you are looking to find the precise word that describes your illness. But many times, the issue is that there is a communication problem that makes them give you a word to describe the ailment that isn’t appropriate for it. Or when you feel angry and all you’ve done is use a dirty word to describe what happened to you, and it makes you unable to express and communicate it well to others, things get noticeably worse from there.

Q. Hannah Arendt wrote that loneliness feeds totalitarianism.

A. Loneliness means not having someone to talk to, not having someone to talk to in a healthy way…It’s a very good exercise to think about whether you have a person with whom you can talk openly about anything. It’s usually not a partner, parent, or child, because with all those connections, you have a lot of expectations, and it’s very difficult to avoid judgment. It’s usually a good friend, a person you can talk to about anything, someone who will listen to you, with whom you can make mistakes, to whom you can say the worst things in the world, all your demons, someone you can talk to in any terms. That’s tremendously important for health. That’s not conjecture, that’s science. There’s a lot of science that shows that when you have that person, all of your mental and physical health is much better than if you don’t have that person. There are a lot of well-known health factors: not smoking, not being sedentary, avoiding stress, getting good sleep.... We’ve understood that one can cultivate a good life, but it is not yet widely accepted that having a space for good conversation is an essential tool for health care, not just a good life. Loneliness is toxic.

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