Simon Fowler's Blog

rLiving Day 11: Neuroscience 1 (Directness)

Posted by Simon on May 10, 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”.

Image: UCLA

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?

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2 Responses to “rLiving Day 11: Neuroscience 1 (Directness)”

  1. christian said

    Very interesting, Simon. And i love this project you’re doing! A few comments:

    1. Although my intuition tells me that face-to-face promotes directness, the amateur anthropologist in me doesn’t yet buy that argument. I have observed entire subcultures of people over the course of many years that have become expert mediating their interactions through evasion, small talk, posturing, joking, social stratification etc. In other words, while face-to-face clearly provides MORE social cues (smell, gross body language, microgestures, etc), those clues can be either informative or obfuscative (not sure if that’s a word, but oh well). I wonder if directness, therefore, has more to do with the percentage of available cues that are, and especially that are perceived as, honest and true?

    2. One of the concepts that i discuss in my new media theory course, and that one of my colleagues is considering as a dissertation topic is “hypermediation,” when, for example, a moviegoer becomes aware of the screen (and isn’t just lost in its trance) and specifically how one is made aware of mediation that would otherwise fade into the background. I think this is related to directness? In other words, once i am aware that language, or clothes, or a blog, or Twitter mediates our relationship (and therefore is partially constitutive of its meaning), i can operate with less blindness to those media’s power over our relationship, without feeling like i have to resort constantly to face-to-face.

    (i’m putting these thoughts out here as half-baked ideas, by the way, so i’d love to hear other people’s critiques)

  2. Simon said

    Thanks for your comments, Christian!

    Funny about the way the eyes read things, I thought at one point you said, “gross body smell”.

    You have in fact picked up part of the definition of directness, which includes “fakeness” even when face to face. Framing it the way you do, however, is extremely helpful: “the percentage of available cues that are, and especially that are perceived as, honest and true”.

    That helps create a spectrum of directness – rather than a F2F/notF2F dichotomy – within which lie ‘face to face’, ‘webcam’, twitter and so on, all of which provide different degrees of truthinessability! The imperative for directness (transparency and open communication between true selves) would still drive one to have more face to face interaction, precisely because it provides more social cues. But your framing of ‘social cues’ and then of hyper-mediation (or mediation-awareness) helps point the finger at the problem for most of us: do we use these cues to inform/self-disclose, or to obfuscate? Do we really want, or need (since commonality/purpose – Dimension #5 – sets the context for the kind or level of relationship one is thinking about) a true, deep, open relationship with a person?

    Mediation-awareness is exactly what directness gets at I think; awareness of the people, the technology or the words, facial expressions or gross body odor that is doing the mediating. What’s even more interesting about your second point is the degree to which mediation is constitutive of the meaning of the relationships itself. So commonality/purpose may set a context or desire for the relationship, but it is supported or detracted by the degree and type of mediation.

    “Mediation” may be a word I start using instead of media when talking about “social media”, actually. Semantically, “social mediation” puts the emphasis in the right place, on what is being mediated.

    It’s questionable, of course, whether unmediated relationships are possible. After all, who am we? 🙂

    [Oh dear. Blog etiquette #fail. I’ve made a comment longer than yours, and almost longer than the original post!]

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