people say their hearts are broken and their feelings are hurt, their
expressions may be more than metaphor. Scientists have discovered that
social pain is just as real as physical pain, and in fact can be eased by painkillers.
Researchers have found that cruel words and social rejection registers in the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex, the same brain region where physical pain is processed. For Matthew Lieberman, PhD, a professor of psychology and director of the Social Cognitive Neuroscience Lab at UCLA, that's a strong indication that our need for social connection is ancient and hard-wired.
"The existence of social pain is a sign that evolution has treated social connection like a necessity, not a luxury," he says. In a Scientific American interview with Gareth Cook,
Lieberman emphasizes that because of the way social pain and pleasure
are "wired into our operating systems," the need to connect with others
is urgent and compelling. Studies of mammals, from small rodents to
humans, show that social connections shape us and that we suffer
seriously when our social bonds are threatened or broken.
research has direct implications for the way we structure
organizations, institutions, and businesses, and the way we raise and
educate children, Lieberman says.
says fMRI studies show the brain has two distinct networks that support
social and non social thinking. They operate like a neural seesaw, he
explains, with one network quieting down as the other intensifies. When
we finish with a non-social thought process, such as solving a math
problem, the social thinking network is instantly reactivated as a
default. That's the network operating when we're trying to understand
the thoughts, feelings and goals of other people, and not just their
observes business leaders should realize that praise and an environment
free from physical threats are powerful incentives just as money and
material benefits are. "It is social comfort that allows us to make the
most of our environment," he says: when we care, we work harder,
complement each other's strengths and weaknesses more, and use our
natural capacities better.
Brain science also offers new clues for education, Lieberman says. As he explains in a webinar on the Social Brain and Its Superpowers, experiments have shown that affirmation and rejection have profound
consequences. When two groups of participants experienced either
affirmation or rejection and then took IQ and GRE tests, those rejected
had dramatically lower scores. Some 40 percent of kids say they have
endured bullying-physical, verbal or cyber-he observes, and the impact
can linger. "A kid who broke his leg on the playground wouldn't be
expected to return to class and do math," he says, "but a kid who has
been bullied is expected to be able to set that feeling aside." He
thinks mindfulness training, and learning how to engage the brain's self
control mechanisms, may build resilience to social pain.
at the Lieberman Lab shows that we learn best with the social parts of
our brains, not with the parts activated to memorize, he says. The
social brain network is in play when we take in new information, and
some research has shown that our brains light up when we absorb information that we think will interest others. As he puts it, we like to be Information DJs. Lieberman
wants more research on the use of learning in order to teach. "We ought
to be doing much more peer learning," he told Scientific American. "My
ideal situation would be a 14-year-old who has trouble in the classroom
being assigned to teach a 12-year-old. The teacher then becomes a coach
helping to teach the 12-year-old and the 14-year-old will reap the
benefits of pro-social learning." Lieberman is the author of the book Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect. Access his webinar and the Scientific American story here.