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The Human Network Initiative

HNI is an interdisciplinary research center housed in the Neurology Department of Brigham & Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School. We use the tools of the humanities, medicine and the sciences to explore human interconnectedness, and advocate for a more communal, less individualistic understanding of the human person. We believe that humans are, as Aristotle puts it, the political animal, at home in the dense, complicated social web of the polis (the city) and ill-equipped to thrive in isolation. We are inescapably interdependent and vulnerable - we need each other, and this need is not a defect or a failing. It is a central genius and beauty of our species.  

We at HNI see this inherent sociality at every level of the human story - our need for community manifests itself in neuronal function, general physical and psychological health, family and neighborhood cohesion, broad social dynamics, national politics, etc. Our shared life should be structured with this need in mind. Unfortunately, modern thought, technology and economics have too often ignored or obscured this fundamental fact about our species, and the effects are becoming more and more undeniable - there is increasing public alarm about the fraying of our communities, deaths of despair, a growing "Epidemic of Loneliness." In 2010, the AARP found that fully 40 percent of adults reported being lonely, up from 20% in the 1980’s. 

Our program has two complementary prongs: firstly, we want to serve as a central hub for interdisciplinary explorations of community, isolation and well being in contemporary America, a large and increasingly urgent topic. To this end we will host conferences, give public lectures, publish academic research, op-eds and white papers. Our work will range from deep inquiry into the nature of the person to an exploration of how clinical, social and political realities should be shaped to accommodate humans as we actually are.

The second prong is more directly practical. The HNI is an outgrowth of the Dhand Lab, whose widely published research has shown that health outcomes are far better when patients are understood and treated as dynamic members of rich, complex, but precisely mappable networks. The 2015 County Health Review found that only 16% of overall patient outcomes, defined as length and quality of life, were attributable to the quality of clinical intervention. The remaining 84% of responsibility was shared among socioeconomic factors, health behaviors and environment, also known as the Social Determinants of Health. We want to be an incubator for practical interventions that can impact the massive swath of healthcare determinants that lie outside the scope of traditional clinical care. The stakes around community, isolation and flourishing are high, and multipolar; we believe it’s time to approach them with all of the resources at our disposal. 

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