Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired To Connect
Book Author: Matthew D. Lieberman
Heyhey, Leonidas here, here is my review of this amazing book:
Pain and pleasure controls us in everything we say, think, or do. But, why do we feel pain when we are left out?
Does pain encourage us to stop feeling left out, and start connecting?
Well, yes it does.
In fact, our brains are designed to be influenced by everything around us. We are designed to learn our beliefs and values from the outside world, so that we feel normal, and part of the group.
In fact, our default brain patterns when we don’t NEED TO think about anything, is to think about ‘people, oneself, and the relation of oneself to other people.’ This is called ‘social cognition’ (thinking socially).
Stopped thinking about math? No more project or work related thoughts? You go right back to thinking socially. That’s our default brain mode. It’s like a reflex. Our brain prefers it.
Keep in mind, our basic motivations are very simple, and evolved from reptiles a long time ago. The motivations are the 4 F’s: fighting, fleeing, feeding, and fooling around.
But at the top level, your brain (specifically the ‘prefrontal cortex’) is a learning computer. You can load up almost any software program or app you want. You can basically learn almost any skill, you want. You can be as capable, able, or smart as you want to be.
But evolutionarily speaking, ‘the smartest among us are actually those with the best social skills.’
More importantly, humans are not ALL innovators, or revolutionaries. Instead, a small few find a problem, and ultimately create a solution by copying or from following instructions. For example, a TAX app that let’s you do your taxes at home; only a few people solved the problem, but it solves a problem for ALL of us.
As a side note, a fellow named Dunbar said that you and I can only really maintain 150 relationships effectively before it really starts to get overwhelming.
But the reason we have large brains? To be able to manage 150 relationships.
After all, we start building these relationships immediately upon entering the world. While traditional sociology says that our basic needs are food, water, and shelter… this is not the case for infants. Instead ‘being socially connected’ is most important, because without social support, the infant or child dies before becoming an adult who can provide for themselves.
More interestingly, baby monkeys would cling to other things that ‘felt’ like real monkeys, rather than mechanical objects that actually ‘provided’ food. We crave something that feels like social connection.
It hurts, after all, to feel left out. It’s actually painful. But just like real pain, you can take Tylenol for this emotional pain. Tylenol/painkillers will make you less sensitive to emotional pain.
On the other hand, being treated fairly, turns on our reward ‘feelings’ or mechanisms. In fact, the same area that likes being treated fairly, also likes the taste of chocolate. So ‘fairness tastes like chocolate’.
And validation is ‘central to our well-being’. Strangers who we don’t even know, or care to interact with, will activate our reward centres if they tell us they like us.
Yet, when they compliment you, and you say thank you? Well, that lets you feel good also. After all, ‘generosity and altruism, are just our way of being selfish’ to help us feel better. We like to be selfish, and being selfish actually involves giving, more than receiving.
If you (a girlfriend) REALLY want to feel good, provide support to your boyfriend when he is REALLY distressed. This is more rewarding than providing support when none is needed, because of the huge release of oxytocin. Oxytocin is same chemical that bonds you together with others.
How about reading peoples minds? As a top rock-paper-scissors champion says: ‘it’s about getting inside your opponent’s head and manipulating what he believes you will throw and understanding how he will use that information to counter you, so that you can in turn throw a gesture that will counter him. It’s all about mindreading.’
And for imagining things? What if you see two triangle and a circle moving around. What regular you and I-kind of people really saw: ‘the big triangle is a bully that is picking on the small triangle and circle, who are running scared but then figure out how to trick the big triangle and escape… or… the big triangle is a jealous boyfriend of the female circle, and he is angry because he caught the circle flirting with the small triangle.’
Unfortunately, this is how people interpret the world. They use drama, and other imagery to explain things around them. We project our ambitions, goals, experiences, values, and other traits onto the world around us.
Evolutionarily speaking, our brain decided to project social traits onto the world around us, and turn off non-social thinking. This is called ‘mentalizing’.
Interestingly enough, our brain reached its current size 200,000 years ago. But we started creating art, religion, language, complex tools, etc, only about 50,000 years ago.
After all, learning to create and to learn is a basic ability we have evolved. It allows us to understand the minds of others through copying or mirroring what they do.
But as you continue to learn, you go from focusing on the basic movements of what you want to do (like strumming the right strings on a guitar), to ultimately trying to express ideas, thoughts, and feelings (playing a self-expressed song).
It’s the mirroring system of the brain that ‘allows us to experience the world as social, and full of psychologically infused behaviours of others.’ Unlike primates who live in the world of ‘what’ others are doing, we humans live in the world of ‘why’, which gives many interpretations.
We need to be able to mirror expressions of others to understand their emotions. Yet, it’s interesting to know that botox can paralyse the face, and thus worsen our recognition of emotions of others. While people who read fiction have a better ability to get into the emotion with the fictional book.
Yet, as many of us know, how a person looks on the outside, is not always the same as how they feel on the inside. You may be nervous delivering a speech, but on the outside, you keep calm and confident.
To summarize, ‘social pains and pleasure are real in all mammals, and occur in the same pathways as physical pain and pleasure. These create the motivations to connect with each other and to survive childhood. Our urge to connect converts into thoughtful relationships with friends, family, loved ones and co-workers. We employ ‘mind reading’ abilities to get along with others, rather than lose harmony. We use the mirroring system to understand those around us.’
Lao Tzu (2000 years ago): ‘At the center of your being you have the answer; you know who you are and you know what you want.’
But it’s hard to know who you are, so we look to others, consciously and unconsciously to find out.
In the west we would call this ‘conforming’, but in the east this same idea is called ‘harmonizing’, which allows us all to live peacefully together.
Albert Einstein said: ‘Only a life lived for others is a life worth while.’
We have more time for self-discovery compared to our ancestors, and thus finding our identity becomes more natural. Our ancestors spent their lives either being taken care of, or taking care of others, from birth till death.
But in the path to discovery, we must understand that we may BELIEVE the world has the same beliefs as us, but the world actually doesn’t. We may even believe that people seek want to increase their pleasure in life, and reduce their pain, but in actuality we increase our pain in order to conform to society.
Being able to put our beliefs, ideas, and feelings into words in a journal can actually help regulate our pain, emotions and promote mental and physical well-being.
It’s important to know what kind of music you like, what social events make you uncomfortable, and what kind of work makes you fulfilled. Having a ‘theory of your mind’ is essential.
But when motivated by money, we tend to work more, and become less social. Yet, when we think about time, we tend to spend less time on work, and more time socializing.
Yet, we can merge work and socializing by increasing status, connection, and fairness recognition in the work place. After all, we are motivated to be accepted and valued by others within our group.
Even reading about how you benefit and help others will increase your performance.
If you want to understand the social world around you, I HIGHLY recommend reading this book. There are a few times when I glazed over the neuroscience sections (ie. right- ventrolateral-prefrontalcortex), otherwise it’s a solid book for the inquisitive mind.
Recommended if you like psychology, sociology, a bit of anthropology and social dynamics.
Quote of the social mind:
Lao Tzu (2000 years ago):
‘At the center of your being you have the answer; you know who you are and you know what you want.’