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20150403 Social



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Human brain is first and foremost tool for social connection between people. The need for social connection is even more important than food for survival and it show in all human activities including initial behavior of infants.


Part One: Beginnings

1 Who Are We?

This starts with the story of author grandparents who were so closely connected that literally could not live one without other. Then story goes through famous Regan / Mondale debates when Regan’s joke allowed to establish direct social connection between him and public leading to victory in elections. Finally it arrives to evolutionary value of social connection with wonderful graph of its historic and developmental progression:

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  1. The Brain’s Passion

This chapter is review of technology and research of brain activities specifically oriented to identify part of brain that is activated by default whenever brain is not tasked with specific activity. It arrives to the Social Brain Hypothesis stating that our super big brain was evolutionary developed to support our connectivity and cooperation with each other.

Part Two: Connection

  1. Broken Hearts and Broken Legs

This chapter is analysis of fear with interesting point that lots of people more afraid of public speaking than broken leg. From here discussion goes to social pain and suggestion to turn Maslow’s pyramid upside down putting self-actualization into foundation of needs making it more important than physiological needs. As prove two points provided: the first is the fact that painkillers work to sooth psychological pain and another one based on experiments with baby monkey and feeding machine vs. cozy machine. All this supported by fMRI research of brain activities. It was also tested by another set of experiments with Cyberball social rejection game.

  1. Fairness Tastes like Chocolate

This is discussion about fairness with usual reference to ultimate game. However fairness here is defined more as sign of social acception and recognition of value of the person, than anything else. From here it goes to importance of being liked to wellbeing of the person. Then it follows with discussion of using praise and recognition as reward and finally comes to conclusion that need to avoid social pain and obtain recognition is as important as physical pain/pleasure dimension and could even be causally related to altruism.

Part Three: Mindreading

  1. Mental Magic Tricks

This chapter is about mindreading as it is practiced in social games like Rock- Paper/Scissors when everything depends on reading adversary’s mind. It reviews a number of experiments related to taking into account other’s mind, discusses brain structures that manage this process, and its implication for social cohesiveness.

  1. Mirror, Mirror

This chapter is about mirror neurons, data and experiments in support of this theory and cracks found in it. It also discusses social evaluation constantly conducted in order to understand behavior of other people and to be able to answer questions How, What, and Why for this behavior. It suggests that mind reading combined with mirroring makes Social Worlds possible.

7.Peaks and Valleys

This chapter discusses ups and downs of human live. Then it goes into three types of human empathy: understanding, affect matching, and empathic motivation. It seems to be supported by the Septal Area of the brain. It also discusses autism and its probable causes.

Part Four: Harmonizing

  1. Trojan Horse Selves

This is a very interesting take on the problem of consciousness and self-awareness: what is its evolutionary value? The answer here is that it is the Trojan horse that makes people more social and consequently capable for self-sacrifices on the behalf of group. To support this idea author provides quite detailed overview of related parts of brain. Author actually comes up with idea that would probably become all the rage in political and business analysis of focus groups: neural focus group when result based not on what people say, but what area of their brain is gets lighten up when some product or political candidates presented. Looks like it has better predictable power than just asking.

  1. Panoptic Self Control

This chapter starts with an interesting anecdote demonstrating how a low value gain right now can cause person to forfeit much more gain in the future, kind of restatement of marshmallow experiment findings. Then it goes into brain’s mechanics of self-control reviewing separately a Motor self-control, Cognitive self-control, Perspective taking, and finally control over emotions via mechanisms of suppressing or reappraisal. There is also an interesting question of who benefits from self-control. Unsurprisingly, author believes that society benefits most with mechanism of switching it on and forcing individual to behave as in panoptical environment when being watched changes behavior to comply with norms. At the end of chapter author again stresses that our Self is formed by society to maximize benefits for it, rather than for individual.

Part Five: Smarter, Happier, more Productive

10 Living with a Social Brain

Here author goes into discussion about happiness and its connection with sociality of the brain. He spend some time on explaining “paradox” of money not bringing happiness only to conclude that happiness is linked to social connections and these connections in contemporary world get weaker all the time due to surrogates provided by technological tools like TVs, Internet, and such.

11The Business of Social Brains

This chapter is about implication of social brain to motivation. It represented by SCARF model: Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness, and Fairness. Author believes that this combination has significant motivational power and should be used extensively in addition to money to improve business relations and consequently productivity.

12.Educating Social Brain

The final discussion is about contemporary education and how it is often fails to take into account social characteristics of human brain. Some ideas for modification of current processes such as special attention to development of self-control, gearing process to age related changes in emotional condition of children, provide also training for emotional regulation and mindreading discussed in detail.


I think there is a lot of common sense related to human social connectivity here that is coming greatly enforced by technological understanding of a human brain and psychological experiments that demonstrate various aspects of it. The bottom line humans are social animals whose big brain developed by evolution to support group survival with the same if not higher priority than survival of individual. I find especially interesting the part on motivation, which is going to be more and more important when humanity moves from expansionary phase to sustainability phase with material wellbeing becoming insignificant and human routine labor unnecessary. SCARF and other methods of using intrinsic strive for sociality seems to open way for creating meaning of life in the new environment when plain survival, procreation, and resource acquisition are given and could not provide such meaning any more.

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