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

Matthew Lieberman

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.

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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.

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.

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.

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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.

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 our 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. And when we do we too easily forget again.

Getting more social is the secret to making us 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, it forgot about social and went back to the traditional classroom.

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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 skills are a multiplier, they allow us to leverage the analytical abilities of those around us. If we’re really connected with one another on a team, each of us will work to complement the strengths and weaknesses of others on the team. 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 1%. 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 with 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 I will now 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.