In Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect, neuroscientist Matthew Lieberman, sets out to “get clear about ‘who we are’ as social creatures and to reveal how a more accurate understanding of our social nature can improve our lives and our society.”
Centuries ago, the philosopher Jeremy Bentham wrote, “Pain and pleasure … govern us in all we do, in all we say, in all we think.” There is little doubt that we are drawn to physical pleasure and work hard to avoid physical pain. But do they “govern us in all we do”? Is this all that we are? I think they govern us far less than we typically assume. The institutions and incentive structures of society operate largely in accordance with Bentham’s claim and thus are missing out on some of the most profound motivators of human behavior.
What Bentham and the rest of us typically overlook is that humans are wired with another set of interests that are just as basic as physical pain and pleasure. We are wired to be social. We are driven by deep motivations to stay connected with friends and family.We are naturally curious about what is going on in the minds of other people. And our identities are formed by the values lent to us from the groups we call our own. These connections lead to strange behaviors that violate our expectation of rational self-interest and make sense only if our social nature is taken as a starting point for who we are.
The Neural Overlap Between Social and Physical Pain
We believe that social and physical pain are radically different. Yet, Lieberman argues, the way our brains respond to them suggests they are “more similar than we imagine.”
Our brains evolved to experience threats to our social connections in much the same way they experience physical pain. By activating the same neural circuitry that causes us to feel physical pain, our experience of social pain helps ensure the survival of our children by helping to keep them close to their parents. The neural link between social and physical pain also ensures that staying socially connected will be a lifelong need, like food and warmth. Given the fact that our brains treat social and physical pain similarly, should we as a society treat social pain differently than we do? We don’t expect someone with a broken leg to “just get over it.” And yet when it comes to the pain of social loss, this is a common response.
The Brain has Developed to Mindread Others
We’ve developed in a way to work with and adapt to others. We’re wired to develop social relationships.
While we tend to think it is our capacity for abstract reasoning that is responsible for Homo sapiens’ dominating the planet, there is increasing evidence that our dominance as a species may be attributable to our ability to think socially. The greatest ideas almost always require teamwork to bring them to fruition; social reasoning is what allows us to build and maintain the social relationships and infrastructure needed for teams to thrive.
There is a conflict between social and nonsocial thinking.
In many situations, the more you turn on the brain network for nonsocial reasoning, the more you turn off the brain network for social reasoning. This antagonism between social and nonsocial thinking is really important because the more someone is focused on a problem, the more that person might be likely to alienate others around him or her who could help solve the problem. Effective nonsocial problem solving may interfere with the neural circuitry that promotes effective thinking about the group’s needs.
We are Socially Malleable.
As always we adapt:
In Eastern cultures, it is generally accepted that only by being sensitive to what others are thinking and doing can we successfully harmonize with one another so that we may achieve more together than we can as individuals. We might think that our beliefs and values are core parts of our identity, part of what makes us us. But, as I’ll show, these beliefs and values are often smuggled into our minds without our realizing it.
“The self is more of a superhighway for social influence than it is the impenetrable private fortress we believe it to be.”
Social Networks for Social Networks
Just as there are multiple social networks on the Internet such as Facebook and Twitter, each with its own strengths, there are also multiple social networks in our brains, sets of brain regions that work together to promote our social well-being.
These networks each have their own strengths, and they have emerged at different points in our evolutionary history moving from vertebrates to mammals to primates to us, Homo sapiens. Additionally, these same evolutionary steps are recapitulated in the same order during childhood.
Lieberman explores three primary social adaptations:
Connection: Long before there were any primates with a neocortex, mammals split off from other vertebrates and evolved the capacity to feel social pains and pleasures, forever linking our well-being to our social connectedness. Infants embody this deep need to stay connected, but it is present through our entire lives.
Mindreading: Primates have developed an unparalleled ability to understand the actions and thoughts of those around them, enhancing their ability to stay connected and interact strategically. In the toddler years, forms of social thinking develop that outstrip those seen in the adults of any other species. This capacity allows humans to create groups that can implement nearly any idea and to anticipate the needs and wants of those around us, keeping our groups moving smoothly.
Harmonizing: The sense of self is one of the most recent evolutionary gifts we have received. Although the self may appear to be a mechanism for distinguishing us from others and perhaps accentuating our selfishness, the self actually operates as a powerful force for social cohesiveness. During the preteen and teenage years, adolescents focus on their selves and in the process become highly socialized by those around them. Whereas connection is about our desire to be social, harmonizing refers to the neural adaptations that allow group beliefs and values to influence our own.
But so what? Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect goes on to explain how we can use these adaptations as principles for how to teach and learn, enhance well-being, and make the workplace more responsive to our social wiring.
Humans are adapted to be highly social, but the organizations through which we live our lives are not adapted to us. We are square (social) pegs being forced into round (nonsocial) holes. Institutions often focus on IQ and income and miss out on the social factors that drive us.