The social brain and its superpowers: Matthew Lieberman, Ph.D. at TEDxStLouis


Translator: Reiko Bovee
Reviewer: Freakbill Huang All right. I’ve been a neuroscientist
for the past 15 years. And based on what I learned,
I’d like to make a pretty bold claim. Now, this isn’t a late-night infomercial,
and there’s nothing for you to buy. But I’m going to give you the secret
by the end of my talk to be smarter, happier
and more productive. This secret depends on a couple
of superpowers that we all have and one “kryptonite”
that kind of gets in the way. Let’s start with Earl and Gloria. For more than half a century
they lived the American dream. They were high school sweethearts, and Earl volunteered
to be a World War II naval pilot, and Gloria went off
to the training camp with them. And when they returned,
he built his own house and a thriving business. where they worked together for years
while raising their family. But at the age of 67,
Earl died of prostate cancer. And Gloria was never the same
after Earl died. She became fixated on her past with him, and yet her memory was slipping away
more and more each day. And her personality changed too. She used to be charming and witty,
and now she became inattentive even mean. Her family and friends tried to understand
her dramatic transformation, doctors too. But they were never able
to identify a physical cause. For Gloria, the cause
of these changes was clear. She was dying
from the pain of a broken heart. And I know this because she told me
every chance she got. See, Gloria was my grandmother. So, was my grandmother right? Well, at the very least, it should lead us
to wonder about the painful experiences we’ve all had in our own lives. If I asked you to think
about your most painful memories, you’d probably list the death
of a loved one before a broken leg. But when you hear my grandmother’s story you’re probably thinking
that her “pain” is metaphorical. So, a broken leg that causes real pain, but social pain, the pain
that comes from loss of rejection, maybe not so much. About a decade ago, Naomi Eisenberger
and I set out to test whether social pain
is more than just a metaphor. We asked people to come in
and lay in MRI scanners where they believed that they were playing
this simple ball tossing game with two other people,
also laying in scanners. If you were in our study
you just hold this little hand at the bottom of the screen. And whenever the ball came to you
you’d decide who to throw it to next. Pretty boring stuff. But then something interesting happens. The other two people stop
throwing you the ball, forever. You never get the ball again. (Laughter) When we looked at the brains
of these individulas who had just been rejected
we saw two fascinating things. First the same brain regions that register
the distress of physical pain were also more active when people
were left out of the game compared to when they had been included. And second the more someone told us they felt bad about
being left out of the game the stronger the response
was in these regions. Now if this doesn’t persuade you
that social pain is real pain, consider the following. Tylenol makes these effects go away. The same pain killer that you take
for your headache can help with your heartache, too. Social pain is real pain. I don’t mean to suggest that a broken heart
is the same as a broken leg, any more than a stomachache
is the same as arthritis. But we distinguish various kinds of pain. And social pain ought
to be awarded a membership in a pain club. So, why would we be built this way? At first blush, the fact
that social pain is so distressing and can derail us
for days or weeks on end, seems like an evolutionary misstep. Why would we be built
with this vulnerability? Well, just like other kinds of pain. Social pain may not be pleasant
in a moment, but we would be lost without it. If I asked you what you think you need
to survive, most of you might say, food, water and shelter. A psychologist, Abraham Maslow
in his hierarchy of needs suggested that these physical needs
are the most basic, and other needs only become relevant
when these needs have been met. But Maslow had it wrong. See if you’re a mammal –
and I’m pretty sure all of you are – then what you need more than anything
to survive is social connection because mammals are born immature,
incapable of taking care of themselves. Each one of you only survived infancy because someone had such an urge
to connect with you that every time they were separated
from you or heard you cry, it caused them a pain that motivated them to come find you and help you
over and over again. And as infants each of you cried
when you were hungry, thirsty or cold. But you also cried
when you were simply separated from your caregiver because social separation
causes pain in infants. You might think that our tendency
to feel social pain is a kind of kryptonite. But our urge to connect and the pain we feel
when this need is thwarted, is one of the seminal achievements
of our brain that motivates us
to live, work and play together. You can have the greatest idea
in the world, but if you can’t connect with other people
nothing will come of it. You can’t build a rocket ship by yourself. Rather than being a kind of kryptonite,
our capacity for social pain is one of our greatest superpowers. Let’s talk about another one. How many of you have played
“rock-paper-scissors” before? Two people each throw one
of three gestures to see who wins. So we know that “rock” beats “scissors”
“scissors” beats “paper,” and for some mysterious reason
“paper” beats “rock.” (Laughter) Now this seems like a reasonable way
to settle a minor dispute because neither side knows
what the other will throw. So, the outcome should be random, fair, except that it isn’t. See, rock-paper-scissor novices
have a variety of tendencies that can be exploited
by more experienced players. For instance, inexperienced male players have an increased likelihood
of starting with a throw of “rock,” because rocks are implicitly
associated with power. (Laughter) And this gives a smart opponent
the upper hand. Now in 2006 this guy, Bob Cooper emerged victorious
over 500 other competitors to be crowned
Rock-Paper-Scissors World Champion. (Laughter) And yes that’s the thing. Now Bob Cooper is the real deal, he even beat a math professor
who chose his sequence of throws based on the digits of Pi. Now after he won
he revealed his secret. He said, “It’s about predicting
what your opponent predicts your throw. It’s about manipulating
what they think you’ll throw, and then getting inside their heads to see
if you’ve successfully misdirected them.” He said he grew the beard
so that he looks like a tough guy who would throw rock a lot and said, “How ofter did you see me
throwing rock in the finals?” Cooper has this amazing talent
for reading minds, but so do each of you. Every one of us is a mind reader
countless times each day. Let me give you an example. Imagine I had come up on stage followed
by someone holding a gun to my head. I then proceeded to declare that Justin Bieber
is the greatest musical talent of this or any other generation. You would be easily moved
from the visible signs, the gun, my gender, my age to the invisible,
my thoughts and feelings, my fear of being shot
if I don’t do as I’ve been instructed. Now our mind reading abilities
aren’t perfect, far from it, but it is extraordinary
that we can do this at all, given that none of us have ever seen
a thought or feeling. The fact that we can peer
into the minds of those around us and imagine their responses
to nearly any situation gives us an unparalleled capacity
for cooperation and collaboration. This is unquestionably
a social superpower. Then you might think that this is just another application
of our general ability to think and reason analytically, use our big old prefrontal cortex
to solve nearly any problem we’re given. You might think this, but you’d be wrong. Our ability to think socially
is so essential to our survival that evolution gave us
a separate brain system just for this kind of thinking. So, the outer surface of your brain,
there’s this network that’s just for doing almost any kind
of analytical thinking you can imagine, logical reasoning down
to holding a phone number in mind while you hunt for your phone. And then there’s this other network,
more on the midline of the brain that’s just for social thinking
for mind reading. We know that this network
for social thinking tends to be quieted down
by other kinds of thinking. So, it’s as if these two networks
for social and analytical thinking are on two ends of a see-saw;
when one goes up, the other goes down. We also know that this network
for social thinking comes on like a reflex. Whenever you finish doing
any kind of analytical thinking whenever your brain
gets a chance to rest, to idle this network for mind-reading
pops up immediately. And if I were to ask you
in a minute from now – ok, to do some kind of mind reading task – then right now before I had asked you, the extent to which this network
spontaneously and preemptively pops up, the better you’ll do
on the mind reading task when I asked you to do it. Just like seeing this word [FACE]
primes you and get you ready to see this illusion as two faces
rather than as a vase, this network for social thinking
coming on preemptively before you walk
into the next situation of your life, gets you ready to see
the actions around you in terms of the minds behind them. Evolution has made a bet
that the best thing for your brain to do in any spare moment is to get ready
to see the world socially. And finally this network also comes on
when we’re taking in new information. My lab’s found that when you’re watching
a trailer for an upcoming movie, the more this network pops up,
the more likely you’ll be to go get on Facebook
and tell your friends about it. This network switches us
from being information consumers to information DJs, motivating us to share
what we learn with those around us. Something essential
to the success of mankind. So, if social pain keeps us close
to important others, and mind reading abilities
keep us living well with one another, well, what’s our kryptonite? Simple. Not appreciating the value
of our social superpowers is our kryptonite. We don’t realize the importance
of social in our lives. When we do we too easily forget again. Getting more social is the secret to making us a smarter, happier
and more productive. Let me take those in turn. In the classroom being social
is treated as the enemy of learning but it turns out that if you learn
in order to teach someone else you learn better than if you learn
in order to take a test. Research in my lab and another has shown that when you’re socially
motivated to learn, your social brain can do the learning, and it can do it better
than the analytical network that you typically activate
when you try to memorize. This idea of learning for teaching
was actually implemented as a national standard in France. After the French Revolution
there was a massive teacher shortage and children were recruited
to teach other children. And it was wildly successful,
but when France got back on its feet and forgot about social and went back
to the traditional classroom. Let’s talk about business. We know that great leaders
make teams more productive. But what makes for a great leader? According to a large recent survey, a leader who has
an analytically-minded focus and is focused on getting results
has relatively small chance of being seen as a great leader. But if that same leader also
has strong social skills, the chance of being seen
as a great leader skyrockets. Social, social skill are a multiplier, they allow us to leverage
the analytical abilities of those around us. If we really connected with one another
on a team, each of us will work to complement the strengths
and weaknesses of others on the team. And remember you can’t build
a rocket by yourself. So what percentage of leaders
do score high on being both results-focused
and having strong social skills? Less than one percent. Because we don’t recognize
the value of social, we’re promoting the wrong people
into leadership positions and not giving them the social skills
training they need once they get there. And as a side note, because of the social brain’s wiring
when you praise an employee’s performance you’re doing the same thing
to their brains reward system that giving them a raise would do
but at no cost to the company. Finally happiness. We know that social connection
is one of the best predictors of happiness and well-being. And in contrast, increasing wealth
is not a very good predictor of happiness and well-being. Nevertheless over the past 50 years
we have come to value the pursuit of wealth more and more, often
at the expense of our social well-being, spending more time at the office
and away from family and friends. Last month I received an outrageous offer for a huge sum of money to move to Russia for four months for each
of the next two years to help train neuroscientists. It was the kind of money
that an academic only dreams about. And frankly I became completely
obsessed witht the idea of going, so obsessed that I couldn’t sleep
for days on end. But ultimately I decided not to go. See my wife and son are the bedrock
of my social well-being, and they weren’t going to be going. My time with them can’t be replaced
by the money that I would make in Russia. My son will only be seven once, and no amount of money
could ever make him seven again and give me back those moments
that will be able to share with him. For those of you with full grown children
how much money would you spend to have a few more months with them
back when they were seven years old? Now if I needed to do this
to put food on the table, I would go in a heartbeat,
no question about it. But we have what we need,
we have enough money. This money would let us buy
nicer cars and maybe a bigger house. But if I went it would be at the risk
of sacrificing my own social well-being and my family’s too. These are the real roots of happiness
and even knowing that, even studying the social brain
like I do, This was one of the single
hardest decisions of my life. Not knowing in our guts
the value of social, the real literal value of social
is our greatest kryptonite. And if we want future generations
to be smarter, happier and more productive, we need to be teaching them
about their social superpowers from a very young age
and helping them train these abilities. You might not be able
to explain to your kids why they need to learn algebra. But there is no question that strengthening and understanding
these social superpowers will help our children
for their entire lives. Thank you. (Applause)

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