rLiving 11: Neuroscience 1 (Directness)
Posted by Simon on December 13, 2010
It turns out, according to neuroscience research gathered together in David Rock’s popular book, Your Brain at Work, that our brains are wired for social connection.
No WAY!? I hear you thinking.
Sorry for the sarcasm. But just writing that first sentence made me realize how ‘duh!’ it is that the brain would be wired in such a way that matches how we experience life. Anyway, here’s a tidbit of the neuroscience (social cognitive neuroscience, to be precise) that appears to support “Directness”. And it’s all based on recent (since 1995) discoveries of “mirror neurons”.
Relational Proximity Dimension #1 is “Directness”. My relationship with someone is better and healthier the less mediated it is. It can be mediated by technology or other people: these reduce our ability to communicate fully. It can also be mediated, even when face to face, by dishonesty and fakeness: there’s a real me and a real you, any fronts we put up reduces directness.
It’s a pretty cool discovery actually (despite my ‘duh!’ comment). Mirror neurons, scattered throughout the brain, light up when they observe “intentional action”. That is, they won’t light up if they see random acts, but if they discern intent behind the action, the same neurons fire in their brains as though they themselves were doing it. (Effects of commercials on children, anyone?). The powerful limbic system that triggers a response to threats or rewards obviously kicks in once the intent has been discerned. Here’s the explanation from Christian Keysers, a leading mirror neuron research based in Holland:
What happens is that when we witness another’s facial expressions, we activate the same in our own motor cortex, but we also transmit this information to the insula, involved in our emotions. When I see your facial expression, I get the movement of your face, which drives the same motor response on my face, so a smile gets a smile. The motor resonance is also sent on to your own emotional centers, so you share the emotion of the person in front of you.” (p160)
Here are a couple of other quotes from the book that seem to support the idea that ‘directness’ is an important factor in building good relationships:
“The more social cures that are stripped out of communication, the greater the likelihood that the intent will be misread. “The more we can see each other, the better we can match emotional states”. (P160)
Collaboration with people you don’t know well is a threat for the brain. Perhaps, after millions of years living in small groups, the automatic response to strangers is “don’t trust them”. (p162)
An abundance of social cues makes people connect more richly, perhaps in challenging ways at times. For example, when there is an abundance of social cues, emotional information can travel swiftly between people in a type of contagion. p161
And now a few application thoughts/questions (some mine, some from the book):
1) Workplace learning. What learning performance is lost with online training? Do virtual worlds provide a close enough approximation to real-life that our brains might learn social behaviors from avatars? Is there an optimum amount of time a team needs to gather face to face to be most effective? (I’ve misplaced a piece of research MIT did on that, something to do with a ‘pulse’ (gathering, moving away to research, coming back again, pulse-like).
2) Management. Think that your attitude or stress-level has no effect on your workers? Their brains can’t help but be affected by you.
3) Communication. Precisely because we don’t want to discern another person’s reaction (and therefore trigger a reaction of our own), we resort to sending emails, or doing nothing, rather than face them.
4) Autism spectrum. It appears that mirror neurons show damage in people with autism. It also appears that therein lies a clue to a better response/treatment.
What would you add?
[See the introduction for the background to this series and the five dimensions of Relational Proximity.]