We Are Wired To Be Social

PlayEquipMany years ago I was with my then three-year-old daughter at a playground. We were hanging out and playing on the equipment (a far more elaborate set-up than the one shown to the right). Another parent showed up with two three-year-olds, one of them well known to my daughter. She happily went off to play with them (as far more interesting than a parent). After many attempts, where the other two were playing a game that involved intentionally ignoring, excluding, and (to put it bluntly) rejecting my daughter, she returned clearly distressed by this rejection. We went off to some other activity in a different place (a coping mechanism). She has long since forgotten the incident of course (as three-year-olds do), but the memory, quite painful at the time, remains for me some twenty years later. I hurt because she hurt.

Why do these kinds of memories stick? Why are they described as “painful?” Most people if asked to describe their most painful experience will describe an experience that involves social pain of some sort. Rejection, break-up, death of a loved one, betrayal. Our greatest experiences generally involve social affirmation and reward. And we experience social pain and pleasure, not only for ourselves, but for those we care about as well.

We are wired to be social. It is an intrinsic and defining characteristic of who and what we, as humans, are. It is the essential component of our success as a species developing civilization and culture. This is the argument of a new book – Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect by Matthew D. Lieberman. The primary message of Lieberman’s book is that we are formed to be social. While it is common to consider our most basic needs to be those related to such items as food, shelter, and safety, Lieberman claims that social connection is in fact our bedrock need. Of course we need food and shelter, but as humans we get food, shelter, safety, and much more through social connection. This is the foundation on which all else rests. The same cannot be said for reptiles or for much of the rest of the animal kingdom, but it can be said to varying degree for many other mammals, including primates and dolphins.

[T]here is increasing evidence that our dominance as a species may be attributed 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. (p. 7-8)

Lieberman is a Professor of Psychology at UCLA. He is a social psychologist who received his Ph.D. working with Dan Gilbert (whose book Stumbling on Happiness Scot has cited on occasion) at Harvard. Social is a fascinating book – written for a lay audience, but a book that grounds the discussion in state-of-the-art experiments in social neuroscience, many of them carried out by Lieberman and his colleagues. Lieberman’s research as described on his UCLA website is in the area of social cognitive neuroscience. He and his students study such things as the neural bases of social perception and the neural links between social rejection and physical pain. Many of his studies use fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) and simple cognitive tests to identify the functional activity of different areas of the brain. fMRI is a powerful technique that is leading to much insight, but it is a technique that is continuing to be validated and refined (i.e. don’t take all of today’s conclusions from fMRI as written in stone).

In the introductory chapters to his book Lieberman suggests that there are 3 major brain adaptations that play a significant role in the way that humans (and to a lesser extent other mammals) are shaped as social creatures.

1. There is neural overlap between physical and social pain. This ensures that we will spend our entire lives motivated by social connection.

2. The brain has a network that is devoted to social mind reading.

3. We are socially malleable … “Our brains are built to ensure that we will come to hold the beliefs and values of those around us.” (p. 8)

These adaptations are connected with brain size (and with regions of the brain that are absent in reptiles and other non-mammals).

Our social nature is not an accident of having a larger brain. Rather, the value of increasing our sociality is the major reason for why we evolved to have a larger brain. (p 33)

Although Lieberman grounds much of his discussion in evolution, this isn’t a book concerned with evolutionary psychology. Rather it is a book that explores the current state of human nature and the conclusions are not dependent on the mechanism by which the current state was reached. The subtitle of the book Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect might more accurately begin with the word”how” – How Our Brains Are Wired to Connect. Larger brains are correlated with a greater degree of social cognitive connection and appear to be required for this social cognitive connection. The fMRI experiments performed by Lieberman and by others can shed light on the nature of the human brain and the nature of these adaptations.

Social Pain is Real Pain. One of Lieberman’s findings concerns social pain of the sort I described in the opening paragraph. The same regions of the brain, the same networks, are activated when a person experiences social pain – rejection – as when a person experiences physical pain. In one study a person in an MRI instrument played a simple video game (cyberball) with two others (well actually with a computer – but the subject didn’t know that at the time). After a programmed period the other two players would begin to play among themselves in essence rejecting the subject. After the MRI experience …

Frequently, these individuals would spontaneously start talking to us about what had just happened to them. They were genuinely sad or angry about what they had gone through. (p. 58)

The fMRI revealed an interesting connection. When a person experiences physical pain there is activity that locates the pain and there is activity in the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (dACC). The latter is responsible for the distress and alarm caused by pain. The activation of the dACC is similar for social rejection. Not only is the activation the same – but the effect of a simple pain killer (Tylenol) is the same. Taking a pain killer reduces the brain activity and experience of social pain in a manner similar to the manner in which it reduces the experience of physical pain. The same brain networks are activated in both cases, and a drug that diminishes this activity will influence the response to both physical and social pain.

We have all heard the chant – sticks and stones may hurt my bones, but words will never hurt me. Yet nothing (as we all know) is further from the truth. One of the things that is being learned from fMRI and other studies is the depth of the connection between physical and social pain.

And this is just the beginning.

I am going to put up a few posts on Lieberman’s book (interspersed with the continuing series on Adam and on the imago Dei). He brings up a number of important new ideas that are worth careful consideration. Ideas that should, perhaps, shape the way we think of both ourselves as individuals and as the body of Christ, the church. We are embodied creatures, created with a mission and as the image of God. The essence of our mission, as the Jesus stated explicitly and Paul restates, is to love God and to love others. We neglect the importance of our social nature to our own harm and to the detriment of our mission as the church.

We are wired to be social and this matters.

What role does our social nature play in the church?

What role should it play in the form and structures?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail [at] att.net.

If you would like to comment, please see We Are Wired To Be Social at Jesus Creed.

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