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What Lights Up Our Brains as We Learn and Work

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Friday, October 25, 2013

When 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.

Brain research has direct implications for the way we structure organizations, institutions, and businesses, and the way we raise and educate children, Lieberman says.

He 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 actions.

Lieberman 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.

Work 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.

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  neuroscience 

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