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Communicating with the Social Brain in Mind

December 7th, 2012 Kevin

What’s this post about?

Two things: (1) communicating with others with (2) the social brain in mind.

Isn’t the social brain the whole brain?

The social brain is mostly the whole brain. That being said, there are specific areas that are more closely associated with being social; we are very social creatures.

Such as?

We have things called mirror neurons. Where they occur tends to become hotspots in the brain for connecting what is going on with others, whether it be their actions or, as we are finding out, their emotions and intentions as well.

Any other areas?

Researchers have located parts of the brain devoted to something they call “theory of mind.” They use this term to refer to what happens when we are thinking and feeling about what others must be thinking and feeling. The areas involved in doing this are part of the social brain too.

Any other areas?

Yes. Parts of our brains form something researchers call the “default mode network,” where self-focused ruminations, day dreams, and things like that occur; some parts here overlap with the mirror systems and the theory of mind network as well.

Your point is that these areas combine to form the social brain?

Yes: these are hot spots that fire up when we are being social.

So how does communicating with these parts in mind fit in?

We call on these areas and networks when we try and figure out our own actions as well as the actions of others. Understanding what you and others are thinking and feeling becomes critical during conversations; the more we know of ourselves and others during the conversation, the better we will do, all things being equal.

Seems pretty straight forward?

Well. Not so fast. The social brain areas also hold the biases we have in life about ourselves and others. We have so many, I have dubbed us “homo biased sapiens.

Homo biased sapiens, that’s not nice!

Well, when we accept our biased nature as given we take the first step toward communicating better with others. These biases include things like hindsight bias (I knew that was going to happen), self-serving bias (I believe this because it serves me best), and consistency bias (what happened before is likely to happen again). There are many many more, researchers have identified more than 30.

Are you saying biases gets in the way of communicating well with others?

Absolutely. A big part of why we fail to communicate well with others has to do with our inability to deal with our own biases, or, the biases of those with whom we talk.

Do you teach what to do about these biases?

Yes. Right now I offer an informal class at University of Texas, Austin, on this topic.

Well, what do you teach?

I suggest that we can rely more on our inhibitory network as a conversation unfolds to help us stay in the most open-minded and understanding state of mind possible.

Well, that’s no help… first, what is the inhibitory network?

The inhibitory network helps us inhibit our automatic actions. It includes the areas in the frontmost part of our brains (the lower, middle, and upper to the sides parts).

Second… how do I activate it?

You activate these areas when you do things like reconsider, reappraise, and relabel what is happening during your talks. Take time, reflect, get more energy up front!

So if I step away from automatic assumptions, I use the front of my brain?

As a general rule, that is true. Spotting new perspectives happens best up front.

Please summarize this post for me?

Sure. We communicate better with each other when: (1) we understand how the social brain works; (2) accept that it comes equipped with lots of biases; and (3) use our inhibitory network in the frontmost part of our brains to make sure we see other perspectives and understand more broadly what’s being said and why as we talk.

That’s good to know; got any more advice on how to do that?

Embrace wonder. Seek sense before you try to make sense. Allow for a delay from the time you hear something until the time you assess its meaning. Ask questions when you do not understand something, or, when something hits you the wrong way. Remain open-minded by realizing you might be using a bias of your own in the talk.

Okay, thanks.

You are welcome. Good luck!

Kevin Leahy

Knowledge Advocate and Brain Trainer

Austin, Texas

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