UCLA neuroscientist Matthew Lieberman has demonstrated that the human brain is hard-wired to facilitate social connection. We are, at the roots of our brain architecture, social beings.
Maria Popova (at Brain Pickings) summarizes the argument Lieberman makes in his new book, Social: Why Our Brains are Wired to Connect:
Lieberman, who has spent the past two decades using tools like fMRI to study how the human brain responds to its social context, has found over and over again that our brains aren’t merely simplistic mechanisms that only respond to pain and pleasure, as philosopher Jeremy Bentham famously claimed, but are instead wired to connect.
In his study Lieberman discovered that social pain, the pain that comes from feeling disconnected has much in common with 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?
Obviously, this has implications for therapy.
A psychotherapy that wants you to get into your mind, to the exclusion of developing and building good relationships, cannot possibly provide a benefit.
Lieberman is especially interested in how this capacity evolved. He added that sociability is the key to our species’ success:
Our sociality is woven into a series of bets that evolution has laid down again and again throughout mammalian history. These bets come in the form of adaptations that are selected because they promote survival and reproduction. These adaptations intensify the bonds we feel with those around us and increase our capacity to predict what is going on in the minds of others so that we can better coordinate and cooperate with them. The pain of social loss and the ways that an audience’s laughter can influence us are no accidents. To the extent that we can characterize evolution as designing our modern brains, this is what our brains were wired for: reaching out to and interacting with others. These are design features, not flaws. These social adaptations are central to making us the most successful species on earth.
The brain has different circuits that promote different kinds of social relationships. The intimacy of a love relationship is not the same as the connection we form by belonging to an extended family, by being neighborly or by working with a team.
How did this all come to pass?
Lieberman says there are three ways we develop sociability: connection, mindreading and harmonizing.
In his words:
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.
On what he calls 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.
Perhaps mindreading is not the best term, but Lieberman is correct to point out the importance of teamwork, of coordinating activities and dividing tasks among members of a group.
And on harmonizing with others:
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, adolescent refers to the neural adaptations that allow group beliefs and values to influence our own.
I would add that harmonizing with other people can only take place when people make an effort to make their conversations an equal exchange, when they follow the same customs and practice the same manners, when they are polite and courteous, and when they attune their voices to those of their interlocutors.