Social connectedness is not just a nice-to-have; it’s a biological imperative. As we embrace advanced technology, it’s important to prioritize our social connections and cultivate rich, meaningful relationships. The future of our health and well-being depends on it. In this episode, Brian K. Sullivan, Licensed Clinical Psychologist and CSO of HealthConnexx LLC, explores the future of social connectedness. Brian discusses the challenges we face in building meaningful relationships in an increasingly digital world. He explains that as social creatures, we have evolved to form connections with others. If we lack social connections, it can negatively impact our physical health. Brian also explores new technologies that are being developed to help us bridge the gap, from virtual reality to telepresence robots. But will these suffice to secure the future of social connection? Tune in now and find out!

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The Future Of Social Connections With Brian Sullivan

In this episode, we are talking with Brian Sullivan who is a leader in social connectedness and healthcare technology as it applies to that. Brian has a Doctorate in Psychology and is also a practicing therapist. I want to introduce Brian. Brian, tell us a little bit about yourself and what you’re doing with gauging people’s social status and how they feel. It’s not social status from a hierarchical perspective but how they feel regularly and we can use that information to help us in the future.

I’m a clinical psychologist. I’m approaching my 30th year of practice in 2023. One of the principal things that I’ve learned is how lonely so many people feel. Previous Surgeon General, Dr. Vivek Murthy, wrote a book a couple of years ago called Together. He nailed it. He called out what he referred to as an epidemic of loneliness in the United States and I fully agree.

I don’t have the breadth of experience or reach that he has but I see it in my practice every day. I saw it amongst my students as a professor. I see it among my friends and colleagues, how disconnected people feel at the most basic level not having the experience of being seen, heard, understood and deeply connected with other people. That is not only sad. It’s also ironic because we live in a telecommunications age that has an unprecedented capacity to allow us to connect with other people, to be seen, heard, understood and relate with one another. Yet so often, the opposite is happening.

We, perhaps, can count dozens or hundreds of friends on various social media platforms but are we connecting with them and spending time with them the way that we need to? When I say need to, I mean at the physiological level. We are social animals. We are evolved animals that are built for social connections and we are grossly lacking in the quality of that social connectedness with one another.

There are all sorts of negative downstream health effects of being disconnected from others. It is the same way that there are downstream physiological negative effects of having too little sunshine or spending too little time outdoors and getting sunshine or vitamin D that is produced in the serotonin or fresh air as opposed to living in boxes with the air conditioning going constantly.


FSP - DFY 3 | Social Connections


Let’s focus on the social component for a second. The hard evidence is that we’re seeing other human beings less. Is that correct?


Give us some statistics so that people can come away from this and understand the scope of the problem. My basic understanding is that I know that we have a decrease in the number of close friendships but also the amount of time that we spend with people outside of our immediate family. Is that correct?

100%. I don’t know statistics very well off the top of my head. If I could keep track of those things, I probably would have been a biostatistician instead. What I can tell you is by looking at different sources. Young people are spending anywhere between 5 and 9 hours a day on electronic devices. They’re often communicating with one another asynchronously. That’s perhaps an upside but the downside is that they aren’t physically with those other young people. The same applies to varying degrees of adults as well. We are spending more time at work, commuting and on telecommunications. There is the irony of the present moment notwithstanding.

We are spending less time face-to-face, in contact, able to touch or smell one another. Something that came out during the pandemic was what’s referred to as touch hunger. Lots of people were not realizing that they were more stressed because they were experiencing an absence of the buffering effect of being touched by other people. We are social animals. We are engineered, if you will, to respond to connectedness with other people. That includes being touched, shaking hands, hugging one another or holding hands. A lot of folks were complaining about feeling touch starved. Unfortunately, we don’t see that abating very much at all.



Touch aside, I feel like touch is something I want to come back to. I do know the fundamentals of it. There is a famous experiment where the monkey baby was raised by a thorny mother substitute versus something that was a soft mother substitute.

That’s David Harlow and his rhesus monkeys.

The Harlow experiment is something that I’m familiar with. I understand the value of touch but is the amount of touch something that needs to be replicated? To be quite honest with you, I feel like there are a number of social substitutes like Zoom, for example. I feel like maybe it does do the job but I probably have had more face-to-face interactions through Zoom now than I did in the past.

Granted, when I was younger, I might’ve had a face-to-face interaction where we would be playing video games together. That was a fun experience for us. Here, I can play it virtually with my family. I feel like it’s not the same but it’s still very fun. I still get a lot of value out of it. Whether we like it or not, society is turning in this direction. Is that still something that we can gain the same benefit from or is this something that we need to work on more face-to-face interactions?

It is good to be connected with others, whether that’s by telephone, writing letters or telepresence. There are great benefits to that. That’s much better than being simply isolated, as we know so many people are. The difficulty is this. Much of that time spent online is transactional in nature. Commercial products are being sold and there are discussions around that. We are ordering things and dealing with customer service.

It’s also instrumental in basis trying to get things done as in work meetings. It is entertainment-based. I’m not dinking entertainment. I love a good video game. I love to spend time playing Wordle with my friends. Too little of that time is spent checking in with one another like, “How are you doing? What’s going on in your life? How can I support you?” That is being neglected.

I hear what you’re saying about that conversation that you would have with someone about how they’re talking feeling, how they’re experiencing and what their life’s going on at that point in time. Let’s say I had dedicated time to calling my sisters and saying, “How are you doing? What’s going on with your life? How are you feeling?” Is the depth the issue? If I get more depth out of those non-face-to-face interactions, will that make up for the face-to-face interactions?

I don’t know whether the evidence supports that it can fully compensate. It is a lot better than being isolated, not being asked and not asking those questions. Here’s the difficulty. Unfortunately so often, when we are asked those questions, we are so accustomed to shallow-level interactions and trying to keep up a good face that we often don’t answer those questions honestly. We don’t answer them at length. Even if we try so often, what we hear from people in response is, “Don’t let that get you down. Don’t you think that maybe that’s not so bad? It could be a lot worse.”

Here’s what so often folks tell me they hear when they try to talk with their friends and family. They say, “I’m not doing so well.” They begin to describe that. What they hear in response is, “You think you’ve had a bad day. Let me tell you about mine.” Suddenly, the conversation has been commandeered for the other person’s benefit. The problem is that we are reluctant to fully disclose and be vulnerable. We are ill-trained and ill-prepared to truly listen to one another.

As near as I can tell and as far as I know, that gets exacerbated by electronic and telecommunications platforms. It is because we arrive at those with an expectancy set of the interaction to be transactional, entertaining and shallow in some way. It’s difficult to let ourselves be vulnerable when we are not directly in contact with someone else. It is difficult for us to truly listen to one another when we are sitting at a device and a medium that, by and large, has been used for very different purposes most of the time.



I feel like what you’re advocating for is more therapy sessions for everyone, which is not a bad thing, honestly. I feel like everybody needs a therapist. I have a therapist myself. It’s nice to have that time when I can have all the walls come down. I can talk about how I feel. On the same token, we should be looking to have more of those interactions with our significant others, friends and family. How does technology have a component in increasing the amount of those interactions?

Let me be clear. I’m not advocating for more therapy sessions. I tell my patients, students, supervisees and everybody else all the time, “My job is to work myself out of a job.” That is true on an individual basis, with couples that I serve and families I consult with. I’m trying to help them to the point that I then become superfluous and I can get out of the way. Maybe two years later, they can’t remember my name but they still remember all the gains that they got from it.

I asked most of my patients, “At some point or another, why are you and I sitting here together? Why are you not telling this to your wife, your brother or your best friend?” Often, what I hear is the same sorts of things that I was talking about a moment ago. The reactions they get are, in many ways, invalidating. Folks are trying to be helpful by stepping in and saying, “Let’s go shopping. Don’t let it get you down. Maybe you need to take a walk or work less.”

The responses that they get are not necessarily very hopeful. That speaks to that ill-preparedness that folks so often have to truthfully listen and simply say, “I hear you. I get it. That sounds awful. Tell me more about that.” Since they don’t often get the responses that they’re looking for, then they become more reluctant to reach out.

Interestingly, one of the corollaries to this whole discussion is the topic of chatbots. I’ve become very intrigued by the potential of chatbots not as a substitute for people or psychotherapy if that’s what’s truly indicated. What I’m advocating for is a two-prong. One, spend time with people who care about you and be honest about what you’re looking for. It is like, “I could use an opportunity to talk. I don’t need advice. I don’t need you to try to make it any better. I need to be able to talk about this. Is that okay? Can I talk about this?”

Spend time with people who care about you and be honest about what you’re looking for.

Being clear about what we’re looking for requires us to understand that what’s helpful often is the opportunity to talk about it. It’s the opportunity to be seen, heard and embraced, at least metaphorically, by someone who says, “I’m here for you. Please, go ahead. Tell me more. What else about that? What else is on your mind?” It’s being in that curious stance or non-judgmental listening stance. The irony is the second prong. That can be very difficult to find because we live in a day and age where that may not be the response that you can expect even from people who love you intensely. 

Interestingly, I believe that chatbots can play a role there. It can be a multiple-level in effectiveness. Let me talk about that. We are working up a concept and prototype for a chatbot that is trained, in essence, to act like a therapist but not to instruct people on breathing techniques or cognitive behavioral techniques to alter the way they’re thinking. It is much more of a chatbot that says, “I am here to listen. My principal goal is to understand how you feel. Please, tell me how your day is going. Let’s play the high-low game. Tell me about the high point of your day. Tell me about the low point of your day.” The chatbot is listening for feelings.

Here’s one of the neat tricks that a chatbot can do. There are benefits in helping people to label their feelings. There’s research indicating that when people can label their feelings, the positive feelings can be enhanced and the negative feeling intensities can be diminished. You win on both sides of the equation. You move from, “I feel awful,” to, “I feel stressed,” to, “I feel worried about finances. I feel worried about my children’s future. I feel concerned. I feel stressed about something in particular.”

To get even more granular, which emotional granularity is the term, you are like, “I feel tense in my body. My shoulders are tense. My head hurts. I’m having difficulty sleeping because I’m ruminating about these things. I can’t get them out of my head. I’m irritable all the next day. I wind up saying something abrasive to someone else. I’ve created a problem there as well because I shouldn’t have snapped at that person. I need to go and try to fix that. I’m feeling guilty about that. There aren’t enough hours in the day.”

The chatbot can help people to label their feelings as part of their experiences and connect that to their needs and desires on the one hand and their fears and concerns on the other hand. They will understand that important triad between what we feel, what we want or need and what we’re afraid of. The needs and the fears often are two sides of the same coin, interestingly. It will help them increase the granularity and the specificity of the language that they use to describe their experiences. That alone, labeling feelings and helping people increase their emotional granularity and the specificity of the language that they use, can have beneficial effects.

We’re genning up to explore those hypotheses with an iteration of a very friendly, compassionate, curious, inquisitive and non-defensive chatbot. It is based on the principles promulgated by a famous psychologist, Carl Rogers, many years ago and Rogers’ teachings about being curious, empathetic, responding to how people feel and communicating. It is like, “I hear that you feel stressed and worried. I see that this situation is concerning you greatly.” Those basic sorts of things can be embodied in a chatbot that is available 24/7. It’s tireless when you have bad days.

That’s certainly an interesting theory. I hope to see the results from that. Is there any hard evidence for chatbots making people’s lives better or making people less lonely?

Yes. There are a variety of them out there operating presently. They’ve been around for several years. I won’t mention any of them by specific name. I don’t have any affiliations with any of them so I don’t benefit from mentioning them or not mentioning them. You can Google search chatbots.

It seems so impersonal to me and this is no disrespect, texting, “Chatbot, I’m feeling down today.” At least when I talk with a therapist with a telepresence, I can pick up on their facial structure and they can pick up on my emotional minute-to-minute structure. Eventually, when we incorporate visual analysis into it, that would be something that would be interesting. I’ve tried the therapist that you text. There are a number of proprietary ones. I don’t even remember the one that I did but it was so forgettable.

That’s been my experience as well. I’m very pleased to see people making the effort. I have tried, no less than 10 or 12, different chatbots that are out there for this purpose. With all due respect to those clinicians, developers and entrepreneurs, none of them has done the trick for me. They cite their research or others’ research that demonstrates that for some people, those chatbots can be remarkably or at least measurably effective.

Let’s face it. For a lot of folks, that is better than nothing. There are a lot of people who will never darken a shrink’s door. There are a lot of people who experience so much social anxiety that they will not reach out or even respond to someone when they try to reach out. Interestingly enough, they will talk to a disembodied medium. There’s research indicating that folks are often more honest and will respond more fully in questionnaires, whether those are on paper and pencil or in electronic format. There are ways to leverage those effects. It is not a panacea. It’s not a magic bullet. It’s not something that should work for everyone.

Chatbots are so scalable, accessible and affordable. Let’s face it. Too much mental health or medicine is insufficiently accessible, available and affordable. As something rather than nothing and as something that may prompt some people to be more self-disclosing or honest and to engage more fully, it is an avenue that we have to explore.

Let’s face it: too much of medicine is insufficiently accessible, available, and affordable. As something that may prompt some people to be more self-disclosing, honest, and engaging, Chatbots are an avenue that we have to explore.

I don’t disagree that this is an avenue that we need to explore. I don’t think it excites me the way that it should. When I think about the future, I think of myself speaking with some artificial intelligence that has a presence that mimics human interaction. The idea of human interaction via text is something that’s out there. If you add a voice component, it would increase your ability immensely. If you could add a body component, like if I had a robot butler, that would be great.

I’m still waiting for the future promised by the 1950s world fair. I will not disagree with you. There may be various variables, like a physical embodiment, an avatar or voice interactivity. Those are all variables that are all rife for exploration as to which of those components adds measurably and significantly to the experience for people. Wouldn’t it be interesting if we find out that eventually, there are some people for whom all those components have to be present?

There are some other people for whom all but the physical embodiment is sufficient. Those are others who prefer asynchronous texting because they don’t want the pressure of being in a real-time interaction. For some reason, that may be overwhelming for them. They don’t want the chatbot to say, “Are you still there?” They find that annoying and off-put. They say, “No, thank you.” That would be even worse if there was a physical embodiment that they were staring at and they felt were staring back at them. There are so many variables for us to explore what works best for which people and circumstances.

It is that experience of, “I’ve tried some of these things and I didn’t feel like it worked for me.” There may be some people for whom this is never going to be a very good solution and that’s okay. For a lot of other people, one of the major difficulties is the technology itself. The underlying capacity of the technology has not caught up with the potential for what could be experienced by the user. As AI is beginning to come to the fore and conversational AI, in particular, is getting so much more capable and realistic in the user experience, we’re on the cusp of the vision being supported by what the technology can provide.

Technology itself, the underlying capacity of the technology, has not caught up with the potential for what could be experienced by the user.

There’s the idea of how we feel out there that we’re trying to make better. If we focus on one particular way of how we feel, like loneliness, that’s something that has measurable outcomes with different therapies. One of the therapies that has been around for a long time is fake pets that people have. That decreases the amount of loneliness that older individuals will experience.

Pets, in general, are also something that’s been determined to make our lives better. For example, people who are dog owners have an extended lifespan in comparison to people who are not dog owners. On the same token with the idea of loneliness, specifically in Japan, they gave these elders a seal stuffed animal that mimicked emotions. Taking care of that may feel better.

We know that that exists as a technology without the chat component. I would be interested to know what the difference would be when you have a chat component. Not only the difference but with both of them together, I feel like that’s going to be a very different society. We start getting into the idea of our interactions with inanimate objects being as real or better than the actions of other human beings.

That’s something that everybody talks about in all sides of fiction. It’s something that is out there. Everybody understands it. We haven’t gotten there quite from a technology perspective but it’s something that’s there in our consciousness as a species. Even since olden times, people have had significant relationships with inanimate objects. There are Greek and Roman myths about somebody falling in love with a statue. It’s out there. We understand it. It’s in our biology. How do you feel like that compares, the software component versus the hardware component? When it comes to effectiveness, do you have any insight into that?

I don’t have a lot of data. I am aware of the little seal robot. We’re talking about robots themselves. I believe that’s been around for years. That is truly intriguing. First of all, it’s soft and fuzzy. It isn’t a lizard. It’s a mammal. Why? It is because we are more responsive to things that are more like us, by and large. There are exceptions. I have friends with reptiles who would beg to differ.

With the Harlow experiment, you alluded to the idea of something soft versus something that’s not tactile and as approachable.

It is the contact comfort. The seal is very interesting because it doesn’t talk but it wiggles and it does something similar to purring. It makes a contentedness sound when you stroke it, take good care of it and those sorts of things. We see this with children all the time. They embody inanimate objects with life constantly. They interact with those objects as if they are vivid, real and responsive. That’s that imaginative capacity.

We’re going over into the domain referred to as affective science and computing, which is underpinning robotics. That’s another variable. Is there a physical embodiment? We may refer to it as a robot. What sort of physical embodiment is going to be most engaging and produce the most beneficial effects or at least support the beneficial effects, perhaps indirectly, for some people versus others?

I can point to a couple of kids who would tell you, “If I’m going to have a robot, it needs to be a bearded dragon.” There are other kids who’d say, “No. It needs to be a teddy bear or a cat.” The mammal contingent would outweigh the lizard contingent but that doesn’t mean the lizard contingent doesn’t exist. It doesn’t mean that they would be content and happy and say, “A mammal’s fine” They would rather have a bearded dragon or at least a semblance thereof.

Our wonderful capacity to project vividness and aliveness into other objects is endlessly fascinating. I remember a study many years ago in which someone programmed a computer chess game to cheat. It would take a turn out of turn. It would move a piece when it wasn’t its turn. People would be upset. Here’s the interesting thing. As I recall, when the computer program was simply a computer chess program and that’s all it was referred to, people saw that out-of-turn move as a glitch.

Our wonderful capacity to project vividness and aliveness into other objects is endlessly fascinating.

That computer chess program was given a name, Mike. People were told, “This is Mike. Mike is going to play chess with you.” When the computer chess game took a turn out of turn, people got angry. They were like, “Mike is cheating.” They embodied it and said, “It’s not making a mistake. It’s doing something willfully.” That’s the basic background research in affective computing.

That fascinates me with respect to how we use technologies, how we embody technologies and what interactive media components are going to work best for which people in which circumstances. If the target is to reduce loneliness, then we’re solving for n. We’re solving for loneliness. Which variables for which people are going to work best? If we’re solving for something else like teaching people to relax, then a different set of variables may work better for different people.

In regards to the idea of social relationships with inanimate objects, that’s something that will be of benefit to society. Some social experience is going to improve the development of an animal or a human being in the same way that fertilizer makes a plant grow better. I look forward to the day when my daughter has a profound relationship with a robotic pal or buddy that you could update and that gives her the amount of affection that she needs to make sure that she has the most excellent development that is available to her. Is there any information out there from the psychology literature about objective measures of how those interactions affect us? Do we have any hard objective data about that?

There may very well be nothing that I am aware of or can think of right off hand. What I can tell you is there are collections of people who are meeting regularly to explore the pros and cons of what you described. Many people are expressing the concern what if we train our kids to expect to get all of their needs met from technologies? What could be the deleterious effects of that? You said she has an intense relationship and a satisfying relationship with a robot that meets all of her affective needs. That probably isn’t going to happen because she isn’t a robot and she has a physiology that still needs to hear actual voices and experience actual touch.

How can we bridge that? There are a lot of different ways we could go about that. One of those is to make sure that we are keeping the technology’s aims in the direction of helping to improve people’s ability to relate to other people. It is a facilitative device to help people get better at seeing and understanding other people, letting themselves be seen and understood by other people and discerning between safe people and not safe people.

We’ll lose if we expect the technology to meet all of those needs. It can be a great supplement, especially for people for whom access, affordability and availability are obstacles or even barriers. For those of us who aren’t facing those obstacles, if technology helps me to be a better person so that I’m a better father for my daughter, then everybody gets to win.

We’ll lose if we expect the technology to meet all of our needs.

That’s where I look at it. I look at it as a supplement in the same way that I take protein powder to make sure my muscles get bigger. If I work out and I don’t have enough protein that’s available to me, then my muscles stay at a certain level. I feel like our development can be delayed by having a lack of those soft supplements, like a tender voice talking to you when you’re crying or somebody that’s listening to you. Especially with the deterioration of the family structure and the increasing reliance on technology to act as a parent, that’s something that will help a wide swath of society. I see that it could lead to better more well-adjusted people.

Is there something that’s going to replace having a good parent? No, but it could make up for a lot of the deficits that we have in society. I hope that people look at it as a positive thing and start measuring these out so that they can see whether this is better or worse. What I don’t want to happen and what I honestly worry about happening is that social media oftentimes is looked at as this great thing. I look at it oftentimes as a negative effect on society. What do you feel like? Do you feel like it’s more of a benefit or a negative?

My sense and my read of the literature to the extent that I have is that it seems to be doing more harm than good for more people than not or at least for so many people in so many deleterious ways that I’m genuinely concerned. I have a fourteen-year-old daughter. She discovered TikTok. We had to put the clamps on that. It was not because TikTok is de facto bad. I’ll stay out of that debate.

I will say that for a young lady in America, the constant stream of images and messages about what her body should look like, how she should and should not behave towards her peers or how to be popular, for example, are not anything that a fourteen-year-old developing mind needs to be exposed to except to know that they’re there. That discernment is required that there are people out there who will try to convince you of their personal opinion irrespective of your well-being. There are people out there who will try to persuade you to see things the way they do because ultimately, what they want is your credit card number.

There’s a financial incentive for social media. When it comes to a software program, a robot or what have you, mimicking social interaction, do you feel like that’s going to be a positive? I feel like it’s going to be a positive, especially if we can limit the amount of the negative influences of culture on that stuff and keep it objective.

If this thing is about making you feel better, especially if we market it as a healthcare tool like what you’re doing, that is going to be a positive benefit. That’s the only antidote that I see to a lot of the negative effects of technology that we have. It’s to build up the capacity for human-like interactions that are positive without the financial incentive component and try to at least make it beneficent.


FSP - DFY 3 | Social Connections


Beneficence is the key term. What you’re referring to is exactly what I’ve been hoping to say. That is the ethical responsibility and thoughtful consideration about what exactly are you trying to achieve. What are you trying to help people to accomplish, experience or rectify if needed? How do you thoughtfully go about designing whatever the technology is to help those people meet those goals and reduce the risk for chronic disease development? If you can help address loneliness, then you may help reduce the risk for chronic disease development and progression.

That’s great but be careful. Don’t train people to only sit and interact with your technology without going outside. That technology will not help them generate vitamin D. Do not train them to spend so much time with the technology that they fail to call and check in with their friends and ask, “How are they doing?” They’re like, “I’m great I’m feeling less lonely. How can I be of service to someone else?” Thankfully, there are very bright people who are getting together regularly to talk about and explore these issues and issue guidelines. We know.

The difficulty is people like me who will follow those guidelines and try to play within those boundaries may win. We may accomplish great things. There will be others who will not play within those guidelines. One of the important things we have to help people to do is to develop discernment, be good critical consumers and understand what the sold effects are versus what the intended effects are. That is because you can sell me something and then I think, “That’s going to help me feel better,” but it’s snake oil. Your goal is to get my credit card perspective.

What are some positive companies out there? One of the things that I look forward to is hearing experts’ best hopes for the future. One of the things that we had talked about before this episode is having a chatbot direct you to websites that fuel human interaction like, right?


I look at as a positive. It’s not quite there. It’s still super awkward. I signed up on when I moved to a new city. Those interactions to me were forced but they pushed me. It gave me enough social thickening of my skin when I did go out to another place where other people were there. I didn’t have the same feeling. You get used to that awkward interaction. After you get over that, then it’s a better, more beneficial understanding.

It’s so much easier. I don’t have any affiliation with Meetup but I have loved that platform for many years. I have recommended it to a number of patients, young and old alike. That platform helps you to be aware of opportunities that you otherwise might not have been aware of and probably would not have been aware of.

Often, I recommend volunteering. There are beneficial effects to volunteering. If you are having trouble meeting other people, connecting with other people or you’re concerned about whether or not people will like you, volunteering is a wonderful path because you’re automatically in the same place with other people who have at least one thing in common with you. You’re there to accomplish something instrumental in nature. It takes the pressure off the direct face-to-face interaction. We’re here to drive nails, schlep buckets and push wheelbarrows to build this house. We also get to know one another at the same time. We arrived with something in common. We were both willing to give up our Saturdays to help someone else have a home. Habitat for Humanity is a great example.

Volunteering is a wonderful path because you’re automatically in the same place with other people who have at least one thing in common with you. You’re there to accomplish something instrumental in nature.

I love Meetup. Meetup is a great example as is Habitat for Humanity. Those are great examples of the sorts of opportunities that I believe good therapists, friends, neighbors and chatbots can help to introduce people and encourage them to go and try. They listen to their subsequent experiences of those efforts and then use that to help mobilize them to maybe try again, try something a little different or get a little better at understanding their preferences.

They may be like, “That was fine but I don’t enjoy being outside and sweating all day to build somebody else’s house.” It is like, “What else might you enjoy?” They’re like, “I love to read.” It is then like, “Might you enjoy helping someone else learn to read? It might be a child or an adult. How about a literacy program for adults so that they can get better jobs?” They’re like, “I can teach adults to read?” You’re like, “Yes. You can go learn how to teach adults to read.” The satisfaction that can come from that can be immense. As a vehicle to help activate people, show them opportunities they might not be aware of and then encourage them to go and make those efforts. Listen to their subsequent experiences to use that iteratively to make better recommendations going forward as a brother would.

I feel like that idea of fulfillment is something that we’re all searching for. You’re probably familiar with logotherapy or logos therapy. I can’t remember the exact term.

It’s logo.

Viktor Frankl wrote Man’s Search for Meaning. Those of you who are reading, you should read that book. It’s good.

I am a dyed-in-the-wool existentialist for many years in the making. On the humanistic side of things, Viktor Frankl and Rollo May are people who are coming from that. Carl Rogers also comes from that tradition as well. I referenced him a little while ago. It is those basic human connectivity variables like warmth, genuineness, empathy, non-defensiveness, curiosity and making room for people to tell their narrative or story without passing judgment on them.

The capacity is there to increase specifically the meaning around those in the technological perspective. What I mean is that in the past, you might only be limited to your local organization to volunteer. It could be your local Kiwanis. If you get out of college and move to a new town, you might be at a local food bank. It’s very difficult for you to enter a national organization.

As a surgeon myself, I can go on a mission trip to Zimbabwe that can entirely be facilitated through online engines. When I get there, I have this intense experience with those people. Those people, I become very close to after that. That’s a more significant, valuable friendship and relationship than other relationships that I’ve had.

That’s not subjective. It’s also objective. That’s something that has been measured in the medical literature. The effect of humanitarian missions on the people that participate in them has a profound impact on their day-to-day life, their experience with people and their empathy. Their social relationships increase.

I’m living proof of that. My wife and I met through a humanitarian mission for the Syrian refugee crisis in 2015. I know from the bottom of my heart that there is a profound impact that can have on your life. Have you had that experience? Can you share some of your experiences? Are you a believer? Are you a patient as well as the president?

Yes. In fairness, I have to be very transparent. I am fortunate enough to do as a career something I would do as a hobby. I am fortunate enough to be able to do something every day that I would do for free because it is so gratifying and it is simply helping other people. I also have done volunteer projects and volunteer activities. I try to introduce my kids to those opportunities.

It could be simply helping a neighbor. It is simply knocking on someone’s door and saying, “I live right across the street from you. We’ve lived across the street from one another for 2 or 3 years. I’ve never had an opportunity to meet you. I live right there. That’s my home. My name is Brian. Here’s my telephone number. If you need something, call me. I want you to know there’s someone in the neighborhood that you can call.”

Why? It is because, in our neighborhoods, we often are so transient. People buy up and buy down and move so frequently. We often are within the physical presence of lots of other people we don’t know. It is making that effort and avoiding the social loathing of assuming that everybody else will do it or they must have plenty of resources.

How pleasant it is for them to say, “I’m glad you came over. I should have introduced myself long ago. I appreciate that. I’ve got a lawnmower back here that I was going to sell but I noticed you have a kid mowing your lawn. He’s always pushing it up the sidewalk. If you’d rather have a lawnmower, I’d be happy to share mine.” You’re then like, “That’s great. What can I do for you?”

It is simple activities like that. You’re going and introducing yourself to someone and saying, “I admit I’ve seen you around here for the past six months and I haven’t spoken up to say, ‘My name is Brian. What is your name?’” “I live right over there. How about you?” “We are neighbors. It’s nice to meet you. I’m glad that we have this opportunity. If you need something, knock on my door. I might not be able to provide it but I’ll try to help you find somebody who can.” People are going, “I appreciate that.” They’re looking and the tone of their voice is like, “I didn’t realize I was missing out on this until you came and offered it to me.” I love to believe that people are paying it forward and doing that for someone else as well. I have not gone on a mission trip, I have to admit.

Have you tried Meetup at all?

Yes, I have tried Meetup. I try not to recommend things for my patients or others that I haven’t tried myself or at least dabbled with. I was an early adopter of Meetup. I remember when they first launched. I have so frequently recommended that to people, especially those who have social anxiety or who are concerned. People with social anxiety want to connect. Yet, at the same time, they are afraid to connect.

I use Meetup as an opportunity to help introduce them to opportunities to be in the same place with other people. They’re not there to interact. They’re there to get something done but they have the opportunity to interact in the process of doing that. It becomes less threatening for them to do it because they’re going somewhere where they already have something clearly in common with other people and an instrumental task to try to accomplish. That is usually along the lines of volunteer activities or even kayaking at the local state park.

Is that what you went for? Did you go to a kayaking meetup?


Did you have a good experience?

Absolutely. I met three wonderful people.

Doing something out in nature is a cool meetup. I hope that we can get technology to help get us over the hump of meeting neighbors. That’s something that hasn’t come across. There are sites like Nextdoor and stuff like that initially had that intention but have become something much different. It’s almost like a community bulletin board. I feel like it’s not that next door. It gives you the ability to meet somebody. I hope that the chatbot will help promote people to do that.

Meetup is a good example. I feel like LinkedIn is a good example. There are examples out there if people are looking for them, for positive technological experiences that bring us towards a better future. If you think about several years ago, I probably would not have had access to a lot of the profound mission trip experiences that I’ve had without technology. That trend will continue. I hope that you see on the horizon maybe something that I don’t that would make that better. Do you see anything coming down the pipeline that would make us more connected as a species? Is there something that interests you?


FSP - DFY 3 | Social Connections


I’m foul. I’ll admit I’m very fascinated by one particular embodiment of everything that we’ve been talking about thus far. I don’t have any affiliation with the company but there’s a little robot out there called ElliQ. It is designed to help elderly folks stave off cognitive decline, be more connected to their families and have a companion when others are not available.

I don’t know the folks there. I’ve been following their progress for many years. I believe a few years up the road, we’re going to look back at that little robot, perhaps that one in particular, as being one of those pivotal technologies that helped to open up a new field of encapsulating and delivering the beneficent effects of technologies for those who truly have a need while doing a good job of ethically avoiding the pitfalls of being commandeered for other purposes.

For chatbots, I will mention there is one out called Woebot. I happen to know one of the psychologists who is an advisor to that program and has been for many years. She is a beautiful, brilliant and very responsible person. I know that the input that those developers are getting is high-quality input to make that chatbot beneficial. The high-quality input will avoid and perhaps offset some of the negative and deleterious effects that can come through the same channels when it’s not being developed, delivered and monitored appropriately or in an ethically responsible way. I’d love to see what Woebot and ElliQ look like years from now.

Before we finish, can I tell you two of the technologies that I’m very interested in that are going to help out with social connectedness?

Yes, please.

Number one is early childhood communication robots that develop education specific for making communication better. I feel like if you have a difficult slope with communication early on, that’s going to prevent you from having profound relationships for the rest of your life. If you’re not able to communicate the way that you feel or communicate with another person, that relationship is not as profound. You’ll feel lonely because of it. That’s something that is a real hindrance for people.

With all of the technology and research that’s going into early developmental education, that’s something I’m excited about. I want to hear your thoughts on that one and then I want to hear your thoughts on translation. I feel like that is such low-hanging fruit and we’re so close to that. By translation, I mean different languages. My interaction with my in-laws who don’t speak very well English would be something that would be of significant benefit when I can interact with them in real-time in a better way than how I’m doing. For the last few minutes, let’s talk a little bit more about those two.

Let me address that second one first. In the 1960s, the original Star Trek series introduced the concept of the universal translator. It has seamless real-time capacity for persons and I’ll use that term generally, of entirely different species to be able to communicate clearly and effectively with one another. The way that it was presented with the presumption was that it was error-free. I don’t know if we’re ever going to get to error-free. We have enough difficulty when we speak the same first language as one another. There is miscommunication and misunderstanding.

It is a translator capacity that is highly accurate including nuances of language and idioms that enable real-time communication with people from other cultures and backgrounds. How can we not benefit from being able to communicate in real-time at least as clearly as can be expected with people who come from such different backgrounds? How much more can we, ourselves, be expanded?

How much more opportunity for compassion, empathy and assistance to one another is enabled when people with very different linguistic backgrounds are allowed to communicate clearly in real-time with one another? That is fascinating. Much of Star Trek was prescient for so much technology that is being developed. Sometimes, it is because people saw it on Star Trek.

A quick aside, that is the vision of the future that is the most optimistic. Gene Roddenberry’s vision of the future is so much more utopian than utopian and realistic. That is a tangible future. When we look at other science fiction like Star Wars and things like that, it’s so far off in the distance that I don’t know if that’s something that we can relate to. Star Trek is very relatable.

The human interaction with Star Trek is something that is well done even with a lot of the interactions between different species. It reminds me of different cultures and languages but regardless, that’s an optimistic vision for the future. For those of you who are reading and who are not involved with Star Trek at all, you should give it a try.

I love that you’re so interested in that. There are so many topics there that we could talk about. I’ll pick one. In helping children to develop emotional literacy, technologies can assist in that. If you’re grazed by people with low emotional literacy, it’s difficult for you to develop it. If you were surrounded by people with low emotional literacy, it’s difficult for you to develop it.

Emotional literacy, being able to accurately label how we feel and understand those feelings contextually as they relate to our motives, needs, goals and fears, is emotional intelligence at its very core. The ability then to communicate that to others and understand that in others is the emotional intelligence taken to the actual interaction level with others.

It is a technology that can help young children learn to identify, label, apprehend and understand contextually their feelings and therefore their needs, desires and goals and reconcile when sometimes two goals conflict with one another. Sometimes, there are two things and you don’t want to avoid either or you’d rather avoid both of them but you can only avoid one. How do you make those choices? How do you introspect with yourself? How do you understand someone else and what they’re driving at? When someone is angry at you, can you begin to imagine that they’re afraid behind that anger? Does that help you soften your response to that person?

Teaching those skills early and building those foundations early enables children to move forward with more power. They are more empowered versus growing up with low emotional literacy, intelligence and granularity. Therefore, being hampered in their ability to understand themselves and relate to others. I’m excited about your excitement about these technology-enabled capacities for early childhood development.

In general, I like the focus that we’re having in society on social connectedness. That’s one of the benefits of all the negative with social media. We realize, “This is something that has a profound impact on us. Let’s focus on it and try to make it better.” It’s not necessarily a bad thing that we’re going through this. It’s growing pains.

Something that I look forward to in the future with computing technology, artificial intelligence technology and a lot of these other emerging technologies that are increasing at an exponential rate is how they’re going to affect us. Since we know that this is important to us, that’s where the end product is going to be.

I feel like we could talk about this for a very long time but that is our time for this episode. Thank you for joining us. For those of us who are joining for the first time, I hope that you checked out the other episodes. We talked about a lot of different things and their effect on the future. If you are interested more in social technology and the things that Brian is doing, we’ll check in with him after he has come out with his product and we’ll see what the data shows. Thanks again. Have a good one.

Thanks so much. Take good care.


Important Links

About Brian Sullivan

FSP 4 | Social ConnectionsPractitioner, professor, researcher, and inventor, Brian K. Sullivan, PsyD is a licensed Clinical Psychologist in practice since 1994.

He attained a B.A. in Psychology at Clemson University in 1990, and both Master’s and PsyD degrees at the Florida Institute of Technology four years later. He completed a pre-doctoral internship with the Federal Bureau of Prisons, and post-doctoral work in Charleston, SC. He has served as President of the South Carolina Psychological Association and in other varying capacities within that organization, including Federal Advocacy Coordinator for 17 years and Executive Board member in other roles.

He was a staff psychologist at the College of Charleston’s Counseling & Substance Abuse Services (CASAS) from 1994 to 2017, where he served as Training Coordinator, Psychological Assessment Coordinator, and as Associate Director. He taught as an adjunct professor of psychology at the College of Charleston for nearly 20 years, teaching courses in Introductory Psychology, Personality, Developmental, and Abnormal Psychology.

He has published peer-reviewed research in the Archives of Clinical Neuropsychology and elsewhere on the phenomena of malingering of psychopathology by college students; this research has been used in efforts to combat illicit use of controlled substances.

He has initiated and/or partnered in several ventures locally, including his multi-disciplinary practice, Lifeworks, LLC, which was featured by the American Psychological Association Practice Organization (APAPO) as an early model for psychologist-led integrative care in 2007. He was an invited chapter contributor to Getting Better at Private Practice (Wiley Press, 2012; edited by Chris Stout).

He was a 2017 TEDxCharleston speaker, and Emcee’d the event in 2019. He currently serves as Chief Science Officer for a healthcare analytics business, HealthConnexx, which is devoted to leadership in the applied science of affective determinants of health.


By: The Futurist Society