Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect

Book Review: Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect by Matthew Lieberman (Crown Publishers 2013 - Kindle Edition)

This book explores the fact that we are a social species with social needs, who experience social pain and pleasure, and constantly develop and utilize social strategies. The author calls his and his colleagues’ work – social cognitive neuroscience – and it derives from both neuroscience and social psychology. It is a very good book, perhaps a bit slow and speculative in parts, but it does offer some practical ideas as well as new ways of understanding human sociality. Lieberman is a psychologist. This is good cutting edge social psychology with serious potential for practical applications.

Apparently, neurologically, social pain is similar to physical pain. Another social issue is that we tend to be influenced by the reactions of others, even if it against our better judgment. This, the author says, is due to our social reasoning which appears to exist independently of what we normally think of as our reasoning faculty. Not only do these appear to function independently, but when one is engaged the other is disengaged. Indeed our ability to socialize and to reason socially may be a key to our success as a species. A goal of this book is to lead toward optimization our social interactions by taking into account new insights into sociality. Evidence suggests that paying attention to social well-being within a group leads to the success of the group. It is a key to teamwork. The author explains that due to social evolution our well-being is tied to our degree of social connectedness. Our social strategies derive from our ability to assess others and to read their intentions. This “mindreading” seems to be unique to primates. Harmonizing allows us to be influenced by others. These three social adaptations: connection, mindreading, and harmonizing seem to occur in humans in succession with connection occurring in infancy, mindreading appearing among toddlers, and harmonizing among pre-teens. Connection is a feature of mammals, mindreading of primates, and harmonizing of humans. The last part of the book seeks practical applications of sociality to make us smarter, happier, and more productive.

The technology of PET scans and now newer techniques allow neuroscientists to determine which parts of the brain are activated when we are performing certain tasks. Another unknown is what parts of the  brain are activated when the person is at rest, or in the “default mode network.” Evidence is strong that our default network is one of social cognition where we think about our relationships with others. The author thinks this “default social cognition” is automatic, or built-in, more like a reflex action rather than one selected or willed. The network, or neural habit, is likely a cause rather than a consequence of our social activity. Brain studies indicate that it appears in infants and is finely honed before the teen years. This network is activated in our free time, when we are not otherwise engaged.

The size of our brains, particularly the size of our prefrontal cortex, is one of the things that distinguishes us from other animals. Cognitive functions seem to involve the lateral (outer) brain areas while social cognition seems to involve the medial (midline) areas. This suggests, says the author, that social intelligence is separate from general intelligence rather than a random aspect of it.  And, as stated previously, it seems that when one is activated on the other is deactivated. These two systems, general cognition and social cognition, do not feel or seem different to us, but brain area activation suggests that they are. Autism and its milder form, Asperger’s syndrome, involve deficits in social cognition and social behavior, but not in cognitive abilities which evidence suggests can be better in these people. Intelligence and social intelligence are quite often seen as distinct. This may have to do with them being different systems. The author suggests that it was not only our cognitive and analytical needs and skills that made our brains bigger but also our social needs and skills. Much of our learning is by imitation, thus it is social learning. Recent evidence suggests that the most compelling reason the brain grew larger was to so that primates could be more socially active and live in larger groups. The evolutionary upside was protection from predators, the downside was more competition for food and sex. Those with the best social skills could best succeed in such competitive environments where brute force was restricted to a great extent.  Chimpanzees form alliances and must keep track of social statuses and relationships which requires brain power. This is true for us humans too. For example, it often matters not so much that we get endorsed or dissed but who does the endorsing or dissing.

Fear of public speaking can be seen as fear of social pain, which in many ways is equivalent to fear of physical pain, as we can react similarly. For many of us, it hurts to be rejected.

Part of brain development takes place in the womb but much of it takes place after birth while being immersed in our human culture. An undeveloped brain at birth means that infants can’t survive on their own and we have the longest period of immaturity of any mammalian species. All mammals need a caregiver after birth to meet their biological needs – so perhaps, says the author, there is another rung on the bottom of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs – that being social contact with a caregiver.

Social pain has no location but if one analyzes physical pain in detail the sensory information is often distorted – there is a psychological component to it as well. Social distress can be as debilitating as physical pain. Our metaphorical use of pain terminology to describe social distress is perhaps very revealing in this regard – ie. broken hearts and hurt feelings.

Psychologists in the 1950’s came up with the idea of attachment to describe the distress displayed by infants when separated from their caregivers. Babies cry, or give distress calls when separated from a caregiver. This attachment distress is distinctly social, says the author. Thus our connections to our primary caregivers make up our first social connections. “Staying connected to a caregiver is the number one goal of an infant.” In the 1950’s during the heyday of Behaviorism the attachment between infant and caregiver was thought to be due to associative learning and in a trend that accelerated in the 1990’s due to better neurological evaluation techniques, these days the biological explanations of relationships are catching up and passing  cultural explanations. In this case, though, an experiment in the 50’s with surrogate mothers for monkeys by psychologist Harry Harlow where the surrogate that seemed more like a monkey was preferred over one that didn’t but provided milk. In terms of neurochemicals it has been demonstrated that internal painkillers are activated following union after separation. Other experiments have shown that the same brain regions are activated for physical pain and social distress. Experiments were done where confederates (those in on the experiment) socially rejected the other person by stopping throwing the ball to them in a game. This was done while the person was in an fMRI scanner. The people rejected reported feeling social distress and activated regions of the brain associated with physical pain much more, particularly the Dorsal Anterior Cingulate Cortex (dACC). Oddly, even after people were told that they were just playing the game with computer presets they still felt the social distress. The author compares such an effect to the effects of optical illusions.  Other experiments showed that the dACC performed two closely related cognitive functions: error detection and conflict monitoring. The author and his wife, psychologist Naomi Eisenberger, did experiments and wrote papers characterizing the dACC as having a social function as an alarm system which utilizes its function of error detection. The alarm part is an emotional component while the detection part is a cognitive component of the overall function of the dACC, say the authors. “Sticks and stones will hurt my bones, but names will never hurt me?” Not true, says the author. “Our sensitivity to social rejection is so central to our well-being that our brains treat it like a painful event ...” Bullies take advantage of this. Most bullying involves social rejection rather than physical aggression. Did our need to grow and develop our brain outside the womb lead to our susceptibility and sensitivity to social pain and rejection? It seems so.

Fair vs. unfair treatment is explored as a social phenomenon. Offers deemed unfair are typically rejected even if the result is less than the unfair offer. When we are treated fairly we feel that others value us and that the social relationship is good. It is a sign of social connection. Fairness reinforces our connection to another or to a group and activates what is known as the reward system in the brain. Thus, fairness is a social reward, very much the opposite of social pain. Another thing that triggers social reward is our sense of belonging.  Money is a social reward as we get paid to do something for others. It is what has been called a ‘secondary reinforcer,’ the primary reinforcers being basic needs like food, water, shelter, heat, etc. Money is a secondary means to make sure that basic primary needs are met. Social regard, he suggests, can act as both primary and/or secondary reinforcement. We desire social regard and work to secure it. Humans are super-cooperators and this cooperation allows us to do vastly more together than separately. One way we cooperate is through the principle of reciprocity, one of our strongest social norms. When we receive a gift of any sort we feel obligated to reciprocate. Salespeople can exploit this situation. According to standard principles of economics cooperation appears irrational. Cooperation opposes the self-interest that is human nature, proposed by philosophers David Hume and Thomas Hobbes. Nowadays we might see cooperation more in terms of social biology, as social cooperation has increased our survivability and our tendency to cooperate may reach down to the genetic level. Experiments with different societies, including hunter-gatherers, have noted that people often cooperate and so make decisions against their self-interest. Richard Dawkins would say that cooperation and altruism is wholly taught and learned while biologist E.O. Wilson would suggest that the biological component of altruism is potent and is often related to group natural selection, which he proposes as a companion to individual natural selection. Others, like Dawkins, think cooperation is ultimately concerned with self-interest. Our brain’s reward system responds to teaming up and cooperation which suggests that we do get some individual reward but there may of course be more to altruism than that.

Altruism is difficult to evaluate because it is difficult to evaluate the psychological motivations and true intentions of others. However, some experiments have shown that empathy can be induced and those who have empathy towards others in an experiment are very likely to be altruistic, likely authentically. The Dalai Lama notes that the intelligent way to be selfish is to work for the benefit of others since that is also intrinsically pleasurable. Giving to charity also preferentially lit up the brain’s reward system, more so than receiving it. Indeed, neuroscience has shown that both empathy and generosity are rewarding. The author notes that there are then two kinds of social rewards: praise from others and helping others. We feel cared for when we are verbally groomed much like other mammals probably do when they are physically groomed. The neuropeptide oxytocin has been associated with caregiving motivations, even overcoming fear in approaching distress. The author thinks of oxytocin as a kind of neurochemical nurse. Oxytocin may also be involved in the brain’s reward system. There may also be an aggressive side to oxytocin related to increased protection of offspring from potential threats. It seems to depend on whether one sees another as friend/familiar or stranger, or perhaps in terms of social biology, as in-group or out-group. An odd phenomenon observed by social psychologists (and many of us regular folk) is faux-selfishness, where we claim a selfish motivation to hide an unselfish one. One reason could be that we feel out of place, or abnormal, being unselfish in a selfish world. We somehow feel we are supposed to choose self-interest over altruism. We may well assume that others are more self-interested than they actually are. After a while this behavior may become habitual. We have both selfish and unselfish motivations. Mammalian brains are wired to care for others and it has been shown that primates extend caring to some non-kin as well as kin. Since social connection is reinforced through social pain and social pleasure mirroring the physical, finding ways to keep socially connected is the “central problem of mammalian evolution.” Severing a strong social bond through a breakup with a partner or the death of a loved one can be emotionally very difficult for us. We tend to long to stay connected to those with whom we have entwined our lives. 

Mindreading, or reading the intentions of others, is the next subject. Early social psychologists and phenomenologists noticed the importance of mindreading. Experiments have shown that even when examining the interaction of objects we have a tendency to convert them into a drama of beings, changing action into human-like behavior, that is, if they remind us of humans. Daniel Dennett noted that we innately assume others are intentional beings. He called this the ‘intentional stance,’ whereby we assume the intentionality of others. It is quite obvious to us that others have a ‘theory of mind’ just like us. Frequently, we consider and think about the mental states of others. This has come to be called mentalizing. Children seem to develop this skill early but do not start life with it. Chimpanzees do not seem to get it but they do seem to have precursors to it. Our capacity for mindreading allows us to make social scenarios and this supports our motivation for connection. Deductive and inductive reasoning are involved in mindreading. Working memory (the ability to hold immediate facts) is involved in these reasonings. Certain areas of the brain light up (lateral prefrontal and parietal regions) when engaged in this mentalizing activity. The author contends that the brain uses two separate systems for social vs. non-social thinking. Studies conducted in MRI scanners have confirmed this. The author refers to those regions of the brain involved as the ‘mentalizing system.’ This mentalizing system coincides quite well with the default network, involved with social thinking, described earlier. It is plausible that early hominid groups without language were faced with the need of hunting in groups and had to coordinate. This likely involved reading the intentions of others in the group and so the system evolved. Mindreading is a skill that can be well-developed as poker players can attest. He mentions club DJs as having to read the intentions of the audience in order to pick the right music at the right time and notes that with the internet and social media we all become information DJs. He thinks the mentalizing system basically works like a social working memory system but still separate from non-social working memory. Mentalizing requires effort and so we find shortcuts, called heuristics to simplify decision-making. We often use our own mind as a proxy for other’s minds.

Observations of certain groups of neurons while humans or primates were performing certain tasks and/or watching others perform tasks, led to the theory that these are “mirror neurons” – involved in learning by imitation. While there is currently much debate about whether these mirror neurons actually exist as such, it can be said, according to the author, that the brain has a “mirror system” – a series of places that light up when such tasks are performed and/or watched. The mirror neuron theory argues for a perceptual-motor overlap. In any case, it appears that observing others can be perhaps more interactive than we realize and that there is mental mimicry afoot. Candidates for what accelerated human development circa 50,000 years ago include an enhancement in our working memory system and a change in mirror neurons. Building shelters, making tools, and hunting were likely learned by imitation. Apparently, there are two main theories how we read other’s intentions: by Theory of Mind we do it through logical inference and by Simulation we mentally project and recreate the scene in our own imagination. Mirror neurons might be involved in such recreations though this has not been proven. Vittorio Gallese, one of the ‘discoverers’ of mirror neurons, thinks that they work as a “motor resonance” when we simulate. We see someone doing something and we know how it feels to do just that and part of our mental system is doing just that. Other scientists disagree. Some say mirror neurons are just conditioned motor neurons that are involved in perceptual or sensual memory rather than dedicated to mirroring others. There is much debate and confusion in the studies. The author compares the mentalizing systems to the mirror system and concludes that the mirror system has been devised to explain lower motor functions while the mentalizing system is more involved with reading higher-level intentions. The author and his colleagues’ experiments suggest that the mentalizing system is concerned with ‘why’ and the mirror system is concerned with ‘how.’ They see the mirror system as a sort of precursor to the mentalizing system. Mentalizing involves more of a mindreading based on words and so is likely more recent in our evolutionary history than mindreading based on mental-motor imitation of actions, ie. the mirror system.

Empathy refers to connecting with the experience of another. The author states that there at least three psychological processes that coincide to make an empathic state: understanding through mindreading, affect matching, and empathic motivation. If we see a part of a person’s body being hurt it may draw our attention to that part of our body. Studies have documented affect matching when the pain distress network in the dACC of the brain was activated in subjects that merely watched others being administered painful shocks. People often do not get beyond mindreading and affect matching and end up turning away from full empathic responses which require empathic motivation. Experiments by the author and colleagues have shown that the septal region of the brain is most associated with empathy and this region has direct connections to the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex (DMPFC) which seems to control the mentalizing system. The septal area has been associated with reward, fear regulation, and maternal caregiving since the 1950’s. These three activities involve approach and avoidance motivations. Such a regulatory system may be helpful in mammalian parenting where fear of loud noises needs to be dampened. It has been shown that damage or removal of septal area components results in an overactive startle response, reduced fear regulation, and over-reactive responses to fear.

“Empathy is arguably the pinnacle of our social cognitive achievements – the peak of the social brain.”

Many agree that impairment of Theory of Mind (seeing others as agents with minds) is a characteristic of autism. It is disagreed whether this is a cause or consequence of the condition. The author thinks it makes more sense as a secondary consequence and not a cause. Since the mirror system occurs in primates but Theory of Mind does not, it is likely older in evolution. There is now a theory of autism – the Broken Mirror Hypothesis – that links a damaged mirror system, where social imitation is impaired, to account for autism and its social deficits. It is hard to know if this is truly the case as experiment design needs to be foolproof. Apparently, some imitation is automatic and it is unclear whether autistic persons have deficits in the ability to imitate or do it too good as hyper-imitators, as studies suggest both. The author has a suspicion that children with autism are not insensitive to the social worlds but overly sensitive to it so they come to prefer social isolation to contact. This is called the – Intense World Hypothesis - for the cause of autism. The amygdala, which codes for and responds to the emotional intensity of events in our experience, if out of balance, may lead to anti-social behavior. Enlarged amygdalas may be hyper-active and are well-documented in autistic people.  

“It suggests that the autistic individual’s aversion to the social world is a coping mechanism for dealing with the most intense and unpredictable part of the world (that is, people), which overwhelms them, literally, in each encounter.”

This may lead to their mentalizing systems being undeveloped or underdeveloped.

Next examined is our sense of body and the mind/body dualism represented by Descartes:

“Descartes’ belief about our dual nature – mind and body – was a profound error about the way nature works, but it was an accurate assessment of how our brains represent the world.”

Chimps given mirrors have developed a successively a more detailed and familiar sense of self-recognition in experiments. But seeing oneself and knowing oneself as oneself are not equivalent. Sense of self has been tied to the medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC). The MPFC may be the main brain structure that separates us from other primates. The author contends that the sense of self is more or less an imaginary self, presumably the illusion perpetuated by the MPFC. The author sees it as a ‘trojan horse self.” Nietzsche saw the self as a social construct and this is yet quite plausible to neuroscientists.

Lieberman suggests that “evolution is moving us ever closer to independent social living, where we maximize what we can do together in groups.” This is the social adaptation known as “harmonizing.” Our very sense of self may be part of such an overall social adaptation strategy. We may well have a sense of self we project onto and read from group feedback. It has been called reflected appraisal generation and can be summarized as “… what I think you think of me.” How others see us affects us and we are molded socially by society to varying degrees.  Prediction of behavior has been shown to be better from known reflected appraisal than from known direct self-appraisal. Advertisers have long quested to exploit this situation, attempting to influence our behavior by influencing how we see others seeing us. We are creatures with both selfish impulses and social adaptations that seek to optimize social harmony or cohesion.

There is an interesting section on “panoptic self-control” which is the fact that we are very likely to exhibit extra self-control when we know we are being observed. Self-control and the ability to delay gratification tend to be a useful social assets. Social psychologists associate self-control and social restraint with the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex (VLPFC) as the hub of the brain’s braking system.

Perspective taking and the false consensus effect are examined. The false consensus effect has to do us erroneously believing that much of the world shares our personal views about things. We assume that our perspective is more or less universal and very often it is not. Studies show that we do tend to project our views onto others. We tend to project our belief biases, or confirmation biases. Successful perspective taking often requires reappraisal whereby we reevaluate our perspective to better match reality. Affect labeling where we label and describe our emotional reactions to things, ie. phobias, is examined as a kind of implicit self-control.

“Self-control is the price of admission to society” (society requires restraint)

Self-control and delayed gratification are associated with success and one’s ability to benefit society and the greater good. Shared beliefs (mostly about the nature of reality) help shape our social self-control. For panoptic self-control, experiments have shown that the mere presence of a mirror activates it, though probably to a lesser extent than if we suspect we are really being observed. Panoptic self-control is unique to humans. Practicing self-control allows us to better benefit society or the immediate group. We prioritize the good of the group over self-interest and this also enhances social connection. Experiments have shown that we have a tendency to conform to expected behavior to avoid the social punishment of feeling out of place. Conformists can be the most motivated people as the society around them rewards them for conformity. Perhaps it is “sheeple power.” Self-control may seem to be composed of will-power but another key component is social conformity.

To summarize: our social brain developed connection reinforced by social pain and pleasure as a mammalian adaptation to better care for the young. With primates came mindreading, first in the imitative form of the mirror system, then in the human mentalizing system, which is a powerful tool for developing social strategies. Self-knowledge, though illusory, allows us to practice self-control, which enhances our ability to harmonize and so to optimize group behaviors.

Our conceptions of happiness may have more to do with success in these social adaptations than we realize. Money and consumeristic goals are limited after “enough” is obtained. There is a phenomena called hedonic adaptation which allows us to adapt to our situation. If we experience loss we adapt by losing the anxiety around the loss. If we experience gain we adapt by losing the elation around the gain. In some sense gain can even be worse than loss as it spurs us to seek more gain. Social capital can be a key component to our well-being. Studies indicate that socializing is quite a bit less common than it used to be. The author suggests investing in social enhancements like transportation infrastructure and creation of freely available localized social spheres in places like college dorms, apartment buildings, etc. Socializing seems hampered in our society by fragmentation of views about things like politics, religion, music, drugs, food choices, hobbies, etc. Things like TV and internet have tended to decrease our face-to-face socializing as we choose on-line socializing. Facebook has made some interesting changes whereby we have gotten somewhat beyond topic-specific groups and into a more free-for-all social sphere, for good and/or ill.

Social matters in the workplace and business compensation can be in more than money. David Rock’s Neuroleadership Institute sees workplace motivation in his acronym SCARF: status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness, and fairness. Studies have shown that people can sometimes prefer being conferred special status to money. Status, connection, and fairness can positively affect the bottom line of companies that promote them. The chance to help others is also a potential social reward that motivates us. The nature of many of our jobs often does not lend itself to being directly beneficial to others. We are probably more motivated to work when we feel we are benefitting society. People tend to want to contribute – to the company they work for and to society at large – and if they feel that they do they will also be more likely to be a productive employee. The brain’s reward circuitry is thus activated. Evidence shows that leaders with strong social abilities succeed and are well-liked. Social skills improve the value of all the other leadership competencies. Harmonizing is an important function of team members on work projects.

The author thinks that we can optimize our ability to harmonize through educating the social brain and a key opportunity is in the “junior high” years where young teens are often concerned with fitting in and belonging. The need to belong is often at odds with doing well academically and young teens can turn away from education. If social connection helps us to succeed then it is likely that social rejection does the opposite. As many as 40% of American children report being bullied at one time or another. Social pain caused by rejection can distract from work and so grades drop. Experiments have shown that an enhanced sense of belonging can lead to better grades. Less distraction by social pain and feeling good about one’s sociality may lead to a more functional working memory. Dopamine may be one reason this is so. The author thinks that utilizing the social brain during the learning process can enhance education rather than trying to separate it out. Experiments have revealed a social encoding advantage in learning where retention is enhanced when thinking of things in a social way rather than in rote memorization. It appears that this is due to activation of the mentalizing system. This suggests that the mentalizing system can vastly aid the development of memory. He thinks History and English need to focus more on Why people did what they did and Why the rules of English are effective in communication. A better appreciation of history can be had through utilizing the mentalizing memory system. Better communication is a goal of learning language and better communication means better socialization. The “learning-for-teaching” effect has been shown to enhance learning. If one learns something so that one can teach it then one has a social motivation for learning – to be a better conveyor of knowledge, a better teacher, for others. The motivation to share information can help us to remember, retain, and integrate information better. Peer-tutoring has been shown to positively affect both giver and receiver. This is another form of socially motivated learning. In younger grades, if older students can routinely tutor younger students as part of their own learning then such a system of tutoring utilizing social motivation can be beneficial, suggests the author. Such a system may succeed with the help of social reinforcements: younger students wanting to make a good impression on older students and older students making sure they know what they are teaching so as not to be embarrassed by younger students. Classes in social intelligence and exercises in enhancing sociality might also be useful. These days they may fall under the subject of psychology.

The mentalizing system is our social imagination that seeks to optimize our social connectivity, our ability to read others, and to harmonize with others. Newer neuroimaging techniques such as functional near infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) may help to reveal our social adaptation systems in more detail. This and other techniques promise to be less invasive and far less expensive than MRI scanners. They can transmit neural data to a station while people are doing different things while wearing them as headbands.   





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