Watch and read the full transcript of neuroscientist Matthew Lieberman’s TEDx Talk: The Social Brain And Its Superpowers at TEDxStLouis 2013 Conference.
Listen to the MP3 Audio here: the-social-brain-and-its-superpowers-by-matthew-lieberman-ph-d-at-tedxstlouis-2013
All right. I’ve been a neuroscientist for the past 15 years. And based on what I’ve 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 being 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 when Earl volunteered to be a World War II naval pilot, 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 or 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. And if you were in our study you’d 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. When we looked at the brains of these individuals who had just been rejected we saw two fascinating things. First, the same brain regions that registered 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. So 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 the 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 the moment, but we would be lost without it. If I asked you what you’d 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 that 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.” 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. And this gives a smart opponent the upper hand.