Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

The Village Effect


I will begin this review with a confession: I can’t say that every event I’ve ever reviewed was one in which I already had a deep interest. Generally, I leave festival events and end up adding yet more books to my never-ending ‘to read’ list. Susan Pinker’s event, however, was one I couldn’t wait to attend, and would have committed to attending even if I wasn’t volunteering as a reviewer. Besides the fact that I read The Sexual Paradox years ago and loved it—a somewhat isolated incident in a time when I didn’t enjoy reading non-fiction—and besides the fact that I am studying psychotherapy, and thus find anything about relationships really fascinating, Pinker’s most recent book is extremely valid to the technological age in which we live. The Village Effect largely focuses on the importance of face-to-face contact, and I was delighted to experience that contact with Susan Pinker herself.


If Pinker’s previous book is any indicator, I imagine that many will enjoy The Village Effect. Pinker opened her talk by pointing to social neuroscience, which is a relatively new field that I’m sure will only gain popularity as the general public realizes its relevance. And so, it is within the sphere of social neuroscience that Pinker writes her book and suggests that our relationships with other humans impact our thinking, and even our length of life.


Pinker spoke in detail about her experience on the island of Sardinia in Italy, where she and her daughter interviewed elderly members of the community (you can listen to the resulting CBC Ideas program, The Longevity Puzzle, here). A meaningful experience in general, I’m sure, but what is particularly interesting is that on the island of Sardinia, there are an astounding number of centenarians—people over the age of 100. And although some would think that the physical island must possess magical qualities, Susan Pinker discovered that the biggest difference between Sardinians and people in North America is that no one in Sardinia is ever left alone. An initially annoying fact, to be sure, but it has great relevance for the often isolated or disconnected lives of North Americans.


Pinker later referred a meta-analysis in which 309,000 participants were studied over more than seven years, and—as it turns out via this study—what reduces your chance of dying the most is strong relationships. Despite the value of being active or quitting smoking, how much you interact with other people ends up being a strong predictor of your mortality.  And, interestingly, according to Pinker it doesn’t actually matter what you do, as long as you are spending time with other people.


As my own experience can testify, there is deep value in seeing the same people in your community on a regular basis. There is nothing like the Bridgehead barista noticing when you’ve been away for a week, or getting back from lunch break late because you bumped into too many familiar faces. I have seen the village effect at work in my Ottawa life, and I am delighted to have a copy of Susan Pinker’s most recent book to root my experience in psychological research. Ultimately, Pinker pointed out that The Village Effect is a book about her own ‘village’, and about how each of us can connect with the principles of village living in order to live longer. Considering how many books I have on my reading list thanks to the Writers Festival, I will gladly take any longevity advice I can get!