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Simone Heng on her passion project, and  the value, importance, and science of human connection in the time of a pandemic

Simone Heng on her passion project, and the value, importance, and science of human connection in the time of a pandemic

Not alone

Text: Tracy Phillips

Editor: Crystal Lee


Image: Willy Foo

Former radio personality and professional speaker Simone Heng is no stranger to Buro. readers as the host of Buro.'s Brave Living podcast. Over the last three years, Heng's focus has been on becoming a specialist in the field of human connection: researching deeply on the topic, conducting interviews with insiders, doing international speaking engagements on the subject, and culminating in her latest venture, humanconnection.news.

As the pandemic changes the way we work, live, and communicate — plus the huge impact of isolation on mental health — we thought there's never been a better time to speak to Heng about her passion project and how she thinks human connection will evolve going forward.

What started you off on this journey and crystallised it for you as the topic you want to focus on?
I was working in an organisation that was quite toxic. I saw how a lack of human connection was affecting employees. The truth is, when creative people are disconnected, they cannot create content that connects. And content that connects is the only content people want to consume. I realised if my organisation was steeped in this, then many other places must be feeling it.

Simultaneously, my mother was progressing in her dementia, which meant that she was struggling to connect with people. This meant that less people visited, which would then make her depressed. I was seeing in every corner of my life that a lack of authentic connection posed a huge problem to our mental and physical health.

Tell us more about what you're currently working on and how your projects have evolved with the global pandemic?
I have been doing a few things. Firstly, I have just launched humanconnection.news. I had begun writing a book on the topic, but I woke up one morning to those incredible videos of people in Italy singing from their balconies. It made me realise that the field I have been studying is morphing daily. The world right now needs positive content and articles explaining to people why they may be feeling disconnected due to self-isolation.

The truth is, Covid-19 will put people like my mother, the elderly, and those people already experiencing depression and anxiety at great risk. I knew I had the interviews, research, and data to provide some peace for these people, and I wanted to fill that need. I didn't want to wait 36 months to put a book out. People need this message now more than ever. More than ever in the history of our planet.

I have also started an Instagram account @humanconnectionnews, which showcases inspiring words on connection as well as stories from around the world surrounding the pandemic. The account highlights our commonalities, which I hope will provide an antidote to the political divisiveness that has come up amongst world leaders.

Another part of hummanconnection.news is an art project, in which I am tracking moments of human connection in this crisis and painting almost live. So far I have painted incredible healthcare workers in Wuhan and Iran as well as opera singers in the windows of Milan.

What gave you the idea to do the art series?
When social distancing measures were implemented in Europe, I knew this would cause distress for many people. I asked myself, as a human connection specialist: how could I help fight this? How could I spread the message of human connection from my own isolation? I knew that creativity, particularly art, was key in reducing anxiety. This is why art therapy has been so successful in garnering connection from children with special needs and from the elderly with dementia. I am by no means the best painter in the world. I am a hobbyist who happened to study art for my final high school exams. Regardless of this, painting provides me with huge joy. It allows me to connect with myself and is something I can only do when given the opportunity to slow down. Painting this series made me feel that what is happening right now can have some positive spin. I guess it gives me some sense of peace amidst the panic. I hope the project does this for others, too.

So this project isn't so much about the paintings but about their connective value. It's allowing me to process and connect better with myself, with others by sharing positive moments of human connection online, and when this is all over I will reach out to the subjects of the paintings and send them mywork as the final layer of connection.

Do you think the world will ever be the same again? How do you think human connection will evolve going forward?
Human connection will not be the same for the forseeable future, the same way airport security changed forever after 9/11. We'll hopefully value face-to-face interactions more while using technology to connect more authentically than we have been. The way we use technology will change.

I predict that we will all have to become much more emphatic in the way we communicate via email. People will go bigger with adjectives and emotionality when writing to one another simply to see the human behind the screen. These small nuances of language are the connection cues people use to remember there is a human on the other end of that email exchange. In our future, even the smallest sliver of humanity will become more comforting than you can ever imagine.

We will use our voices so much more in the future. As a radio DJ for 13 years I don't suffer from the cringe most people do when they hear their own voice. I constantly send voice messages on WhatsApp, Facebook messenger, Instagram and even LinkedIn direct message. It probably doesn't need to be explained, but when we use our voice to communicate, we are disclosing tone and inflection which in turn conveys far more meaning than text. The more meaning, the more connection. Global speaking guru Tony Robbins is a big fan of sending emails in voice recording and we may just see the world follow in his footsteps in time to come. A great example of using voice to communicate humanity was demonstrated in the midst of the Covid-19 crisis. Here in Singapore, an incredible Grab Food delivery driver decided to send updates to his customer via voice notes and even produced them with background music. This is such an incredible example of how human connection will become more precious in our future, post-outbreak. Our everyday exchanges will be treasured. You can read this incredible story here.

We all, including the older generation, will get very used to using video. Video will not just be for face-to-face interactions. I think in the short term (say 12 to 24 months), organisations will increase their use of video communication by over 80 percent. After the tide goes out, we will be using video in lieu of all non-essential meetings.

We will use apps in the future that allow for more meaningful connections then the social networks that are currently popular. Connection and Kindness specialist Mark Shapiro will soon launch an app called Love Bomb, which allows people to "manage relationships, celebrate their favourite people and smile more daily." This is the perfect marriage of technology and human connection.

Our video conferences will go to the next level! We will learn to turn our video conferences into a networker. Many events are being cancelled with the advent of Covid-19, and transitioning to live-streaming. We may see this extend for a while after the crisis. Virtual summits will become more sophisticated, like the newly-launched www.runtheworld.today, allowing participants to network and freely-connect in a virtual, cocktail-like atmosphere after.

The way we connect when we are actually together in-person will change, too. We will use this time to have valuable, deep, and authentic conversations. We will be more present and savour these moments. Instagrammer Koreen has set up the account @werenotreallystrangers and a card game with the same name to facilitate deeper connection when meeting in person. Take a look at the video here.

Technology married with human connection will be more imbued into our lives than ever before. One fact remains in our future: we will have to work harder to create those moments of face-to-face human connection than we have ever had to before.

How have things been for you personally since the pandemic and what have been your greatest learnings and challenges?
I thought I was doing great, keeping busy with the three projects I mentioned, and doing loads of online coaching. But I woke up and realised all my on-stage gigs for the forseeable future are gone. I had barely noticed because I was busy creating all of these things, but it just hit me how much that human connection — of being on a stage and seeing reactions and sparks flying — will be gone for a very long time. I realised, even armed with all I know about the subject intellectually, it doesn't mean I am not going to feel the effects of solitude.

I am slowly getting sick of connecting through a screen. It simply doesn't replace the face-to-face connection we all need. I think the biggest thing that hurts was cancelling my trip to see my mum. All visits to the nursing home are scaled back in general in Australia. From May, I will need a general flu jab to visit her, I can no longer lie next to her for the whole day. The number of hours per visit have been reduced. She is very lonely. This is hard; the guilt of this is hard. I know, however, there are people in a much worse position than me.

Are there any facts or thoughts about human connection that might surprise people?
I don't think people realise that human connection is a scientific thing. Human beings have the most sophisticated neocortex of any living thing. This is the part of the brain built for social interactions. We are literally wired to connect and it is unnatural to be isolated. That's why solitary confinement is used as a form of punishment in jail. When we are isolated for too long, it releases the stress hormone, cortisol, and this can result in a huge lowering in our immunity. We can actually get sick from a lack of human connection. I hope what I have just explained makes people reading this pick up their phones and video someone during this pandemic. Someone who may be already at risk. Send a video message, give them a boost of oxytocin, which is the social-bonding hormone. This is the science to support you in reaching out: you are giving a gift in your human contact.

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