Matthew Lieberman: The Social Brain and Its Superpowers (Full Transcript)

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.

Now in 2006 this guy, Bob Cooper emerged victorious over 500 other competitors to be crowned Rock-Paper-Scissors World Champion. 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 you’ll 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 looked like a tough guy who would throw rock a lot and then said, “How often did you see me throwing rock in the finals?”

So 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. And 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.

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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, on 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.

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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.

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