Food, Water, Shelter and Facebook

A compelling argument for why people really need people

Reveller's picnic at the Chap Olympiad, an eccentric sporting event held in Bedford Square on July 13, 2013 in London, England.
Warrick Page/Getty Images

Why do we humans have such big brains? Social neuroscientist Matthew Lieberman convincingly argues in his new book, "Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect" (Crown), that it's not so we can play chess or find derivatives. Our noggins ensure that we stay connected, cooperate and figure one another out as we navigate the group-living arrangement, which has enabled us to survive and thrive.

You point out that 70 percent of conversational content is social in nature and that our brain's "default mode" is to think about other people and social situations. How does this preoccupation with the social world fit into our roster of basic needs?

Connection is a profound and basic need. Unlike other basic needs, we don't seem to have a real awareness of how central it is to our well-being. We wouldn't be here, we wouldn't have survived infancy, if it wasn't for the way our brain is wired to crave and seek out social connections. Infants are completely incapable of getting themselves food, water and shelter, and so the way we get those things is by having a parent who cares enough about being connected to us that they will go toward a screaming infant instead of away from one. In the rest of our lives, the equivalent of a screaming infant is something to avoid, not something to go toward.

You've shown through functional magnetic-resonance imaging (fMRI) experiments that social pain is processed in the same area of the brain as physical pain. What are some of the implications of these findings?

Several studies show that the brain responds very similarly to physical and social pain and that painkillers like Tylenol ease both. Also, people who have a genetic predisposition to need more medication to resolve physical pain are also more sensitive to social pain.

We think of depression as a psychological phenomenon where you get stuck inside your own head and particular thinking patterns, but when people are depressed, their sensitivity to pain changes. When people get socially rejected, they tend to get more inflammation—their immune system flares up. It runs the other way, too. My wife, (UCLA social psychologist) Naomi Eisenberger, has set off people’s immune systems in the lab. She found they then got more socially sensitive. There is a link between the way the immune system shuts us down and puts us into what looks like a sick mode and what's going on during depression.

Speaking of the Tylenol study, should you pop a Tylenol or two if you're anticipating a breakup?

The Tylenol study is fascinating. It's now being replicated with some other kinds of emotional pain. The thing to be very cautious of is that Tylenol taken in high doses is incredibly toxic. So any applied use of that should only be done under the care of a psychiatrist. 

Gossip is the way we transmit information efficiently. Historically, it was essential to behaving intelligently in a group.

You don't discuss gender differences in the book. Aren't women more driven to connect than men?

Every study that looks at empathy and reading social cues comes to the conclusion that women care more. But when you move to the fMRI data, we don’t see that effect screaming out at us. I think it says that the tools we have right now to look at the brain aren't revealing it; other tools will. You don't get a difference in behavior without there being a difference in the brain.

Does learning to be a better mind reader protect us from social pain?

When I talk about mind reading, I'm referring to our ability and tendency to focus on what other people are thinking and feeling and what will they think or feel if, for instance, I send this e-mail that's really angry. This impressive tool doesn't necessarily protect us from every kind of social pain. The best mind readers in the world are probably still going to go through romantic breakups; they’re still going to have people in their life die.

But mind reading allows us to try to be better at coordinating what we're doing with those around us. So, if I'm trying to work well on a team in a business, it can allow me to think about my boss's goals and the goals of the other people on my team and to figure out how I can help them in what they're trying to achieve and thus help the team achieve its goal.

Is the discussion of novels or TV shows — I'm thinking of how the recent "Breaking Bad" finale lit up the Internet — just another example of our trying to improve our mind reading skills, trying to figure out why people in our own social groups do the things they do?

Just last week an article appeared in "Science," where the researchers had people read various literary excerpts and then take a mind-reading test. They showed that these people actually performed better compared to those who didn't read literary excerpts. So that's a very interesting defense of why our children need to read fiction: It hones this incredibly special skill.

As for "Breaking Bad", we're certainly wired to have a shared discussion about what’s going on in the minds of others. It's not just thinking about it; it's about us as a group getting clear on what motivates other people in the group, where they fit in. Gossip is the way we transmit that information very efficiently. Historically, it was really essential to behaving intelligently in a group.

You describe self-control as "the price of admission to society." An interesting study demonstrates "panoptic control," or the mere threat of others watching us and how it keeps us in line: Children who caught a glimpse of themselves in a mirror while hovering over an unsupervised bowl of Halloween candy were five times less likely to take more than one piece than those who didn’t see the mirror. How do we balance our basic impulses with those that benefit the group?

Our intuition is that self-control is something that we use to advance our own personal best. And I think that's true, but when we do, we're also advancing an agenda that helps society. Think about all the things that you have to do to become a doctor — all the schooling, sleepless nights, being on call. All of it requires tremendous self-control. It's certainly seen as a way of advancing your own personal destiny and making a good salary. But there is a statistic that more than half of doctors in the U.S. say that if they had it to do over again, they would choose a different career. Society needs more doctors, not fewer. So we unambiguously benefit from their self-control. The doctors do benefit, but it may not be quite what they thought they were going to get.

You argue that in the past 50 years, we've become less social and more materialistic. Yet if we are built to be incredibly social and we create society, this seems to contradict your point that social connection is more important to us than money or material goods.

It's easy for humans to get addicted to things that are not necessarily for their long-term best interest. Fifty-thousand years ago there were no overweight people. Having a brain that craved sweet things was never a danger to weight, because there was such a scarcity of food.

We could apply that to material goods. Being able to seek out material goods — shelter, clothing, certain artifacts — that was a useful impulse to have 50,000 years ago, and it definitely upped the quality of your life. But now there is just this endless array of material goods that we can seek out, and I think that impulse is a bit more out of control.

How does status fit into this? Perhaps I think that if I have a bigger house and live in a better neighborhood, my friends will want to see me more or I’ll make more friends.

I absolutely think that that is one of the social motivations behind all that, and it tends to be counterproductive. In order to get more material goods, we work harder at the office, and then, we have more time away from the people who care about us.

You end your book with a prediction that in the future, social neuroscientists will appear as frequent commenters on news programs. Can you shed some light on the government shutdown?

When we look at [Speaker of the House John] Boehner, it's easy to say, "All he cares about is staying in power or screwing the Democrats." Maybe that's part of his motivation, but part of his motivation may be dealing with incredibly complex negotiations, not just across the aisle but within his own party.

My advice is to remember that the vast majority of people don't wake up in the morning and say, "I'm going to be the biggest jerk I can be today." People are facing the challenges in front of them, and most of them are doing it in good faith.

This interview was condensed and edited.

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