THE SOCIAL BRAIN: WIRED FOR “WE” - Woodmam

What do you picture when you think about the brain? Maybe you recall an image from high school biology class: that weird organ floating in the jar, or a picture of it in a textbook. The problem with this “single skull” perspective—where we consider each individual brain as a lone organ isolated in a single skull—is that it neglects the truth that scientists have come to understand over the last few decades: that the brain is a social organ, made to be in relationship. It’s hardwired to take in signals from the social environment, which in turn influence a person’s inner world. In other words, what happens between brains has a great deal to do with what happens within each individual brain. Self and community are fundamentally interrelated, since every brain is continually constructed by its interactions with others. Even more, studies of happiness and wisdom reveal that a key factor in well-being is devoting one’s attention and passions to the benefit of others instead of just focusing on the individual, separate concerns of a private self. The “me” discovers meaning and happiness by joining and belonging to a “we.”

To put it differently, the brain is set up for interpersonal integration. Just as its many different parts are made to work together, each individual brain is made to relate with the brain of each person we interact with. Interpersonal integration means that we honor and nurture our differences while cultivating our connections with one another. So while we want to help our kids integrate their left and right brain, their upstairs and downstairs brain, their implicit and explicit memories, and so on, we also need to help them understand the extent to which they are connected to their family, friends, classmates, and other people in their communities. By understanding basic facets of the relational brain, we can help our kids develop the mindsight that will allow them to enjoy deeper and more meaningful relationships.

MIRROR NEURONS: THE REFLECTORS IN THE MIND

Do you ever get thirsty when you see someone take a drink? Or yawn when someone else does? These familiar responses can be understood in light of one of the most fascinating recent discoveries about the brain: mirror neurons. Here’s how the discovery took place.

In the early 1990s, a group of Italian neuroscientists were studying the brain of a macaque monkey. They had implanted electrodes to monitor individual neurons, and when the monkey ate a peanut, a certain electrode fired. No surprise there—that’s what the researchers expected. But then a scientist’s snack changed the course of our insight into the mind. One of the researchers picked up a peanut and ate it as the monkey watched. In response, the monkey’s motor neuron fired—the same one that had fired when he had actually eaten the peanut himself! The researchers discovered that the monkey’s brain was influenced and became active just by watching the actions of another. Whether the monkey witnessed an action or performed that same behavior himself, the same set of neurons became activated.

Scientists immediately began scrambling to identify these “mirror neurons” in humans. And while there are far more questions than answers about exactly what they are and how they work, we are actively learning more and more about the mirror neuron system. These neurons may be the root of empathy, and therefore contribute to mindsight, in the human brain.

The key is that mirror neurons respond only to an act with intention, where there’s some predictability or purpose that can be perceived. For example, if someone simply waves her hand in the air randomly, your mirror neurons won’t respond. But if that person carries out an act you can predict from experience, like taking a drink from a cup of water, your mirror neurons will “figure out” what’s intended before the person does it. So when she lifts up her hand with a cup in it, you can predict at a synaptic level that she intends to drink from it. Not only that, the mirror neurons in your own upstairs brain will get you ready to drink as well. We see an act, we understand the purpose of the act, and we ready ourselves to mirror it.

At the simplest level, that’s why we get thirsty when others drink, and why we yawn when others yawn. It may be why even a newborn infant, just a few hours old, can mimic his parents when he sticks out his tongue. Mirror neurons may also explain why younger siblings are sometimes better at sports. Before they ever join their own team, their mirror neurons have fired each of the hundreds of times they’ve watched their older siblings hit, kick, and throw a ball. At the most complex level, mirror neurons help us understand the nature of culture and how our shared behaviors bind us together, child to parent, friend to friend, and eventually spouse to spouse.

Now let’s take another step. Based on what we see (as well as hear, smell, touch, and taste) in the world around us, we can mirror not only the behavioral intentions of others, but also their emotional states. In other words, mirror neurons may allow us not only to imitate others’ behaviors, but actually to resonate with their feelings. We sense not only what action is coming next, but also the emotion that underlies the behavior. For this reason, we could also call these special neural cells “sponge neurons” in that we soak up like a sponge what we see in the behaviors, intentions, and emotions of someone else. We don’t just “mirror back” to someone else, but we “sponge in” their internal states.

Notice what happens when you’re at a party with friends. If you approach a group that’s laughing, you’ll probably find yourself smiling or chuckling even before you’ve heard the joke. Or have you noticed that when you’re nervous or stressed out, your kids will often be that way, too? Scientists call this “emotional contagion.” The internal states of others—from joy and playfulness to sadness and fear—directly affect our own state of mind. We soak other people into our own inner world.

You can see, then, why neuroscientists call the brain a social organ. It’s absolutely built for mindsight. We are biologically equipped to be in relationships, to understand where other people are coming from, and to influence one another. As we’ve explained throughout the book, the brain is actually reshaped by our experiences. That means that every discussion, argument, joke, or hug we share with someone else literally alters our brain and that of the other person. After a powerful conversation or time spent with an important person in our life, we have a different brain. Since none of us is working from a single-skull mind, our whole mental life results from our inner neural world and the external signals we receive from others. Each of us is meant to join our individual “me” with others to become a part of “we.”
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