Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect

Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect

Mathew Lieberman’s new book  Social:  Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect explores the evolutionary necessity of social interactions for  happiness, effectiveness, and well-being.  Lieberman, a neuropsychologist at UCLA, says the fact that so much of our more recently evolved neural circuitry is dedicated to being social, that our brains lead us – require us – to be social – is not an accident.  It’s evolution on-purpose to ensure the survival and success of the human species.Social intelligence not just a subset of general intelligence.  Lieberman proposes it has its own dedicated circuitry.  Lieberman posits that the purpose of the default network of the brain, the mode of processing in the brain when the brain is not doing anything in particular, is for social cognition – the brain spends its “off” time thinking about other people, processing and re-processing social information and making sense of interactions and the feelings of those interactions.  The social brain orients us to seeing the world in terms of social rather than physical elements; being social is the preferred default mode of being in the brain.Lieberman applies this preferred mode of being in the brain to three areas of human/brain/social development:

Connecting: using the processing of social pain – hurt, loss, rejection, shame –  and social pleasure – love, belonging – to shape our relationships and attachments lifelong.

Mindreading: understanding the actions, thoughts, intentions, and meanings of others, including how they are similar or different to our own.

Harmonizing: creating social cohesion through allowing beliefs and values of our social groups to influence our own.

That modern brain science is validating the universal common sense experience that we are wired to connect has far-reaching implications for how we run our schools, businesses, government as well as our families.  May these reflections and practices be useful to you and yours.

REFLECTIONS  on Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect

CONNECTIONIn the mammalian brain, the circuitry for processing social pain is layered on top of the circuits evolved to process physical pain.  Lieberman describes research done in his lab and others to show the “lighting up” of the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (dACC) for both processes.Because evolution has given us this overlap in the neural structures that process social pain – rejection, loss, feeling unlovable or disconnected, not belonging – with those that process physical pain, Lieberman says we can no more “just get over” a broken heart than we can “just get over” a broken leg.  This overlap is Nature’s way of ensuring we will spend our entire lives motivated by social connection for our survival as a species as well as our individual well-being.

The need to connect goes back to being born.  Human infants, with their large brains compared to body size, are born prematurely to get through birth canal.  They then spend a longer time maturing their brain than any other mammal. During this time of dependency, brain development happens in the context of interacting with other brains; infants have to be able to make their caregivers be willing to stay connected to them for survival.

“Basic pain and pleasure motives have been co-opted to serve our social lives.  The single most important need of an infant mammal is to be continuously cared for by an adult.  Without this, all other needs of the infant go unmet, and it will die.  Creating ways to keep us connected is therefore the central problem of mammalian evolution.  By making threats to our social connection truly painful, our brains produce adaptive responses to these threats (for example, an infant’s crying, which get a caregiver’s attention.)  And by making the care of our children intrinsically rewarding and reinforcing, our brains ensure that we will be there for our children even before we are needed.”

Lieberman suggests re-ordering Abraham Maslow’s widely accepted hierarchy of needs. In Maslow’s model, physiological needs like food, water, and sleep are the foundation of the pyramid of development.  Then come safety needs like physical shelter and bodily health.  Then come social needs, then needs for self-esteem and self-actualization.

Lieberman suggests the infant’s social needs for connecting with a caregiver who is committed to meeting the infant’s biological needs – food, water, sleep, shelter, safety – is paramount.  No connection, no survival.  He says love and belonging are NOT conveniences we can live without. Research into social rewards – both receiving the respect, affection and care of others, and the sense of reward we feel when we care for or treat another well, activate the ventral medial pre-frontal cortex of the brain, the structure essential in developing secure attachment among mothers and infants.  As 60 years of attachment research attests; connection is the platform for the rest of existence, thriving and flourishing.

Capacities to perceive, respond to, shape our relationship style and sense of self based on social pain and social pleasure are essential to attachment lifelong.  Lieberman suggests the circuitry we use for navigating our worlds socially is very distinct from the circuitry we use for understanding our world rationally.  Though they don’t necessarily feel any differently,  that’s a “blind spot” in our perception,  In fact, they operate somewhat like a neural see saw.  The more the brain is operating from the rational system the less it is from the social and vice versa.  The more someone is focused on a problem, the more they might be likely to alienate other people around them who could help solve the problem.  Conversely, the more we focus on relating to the people around us sometimes it can feel like we’re not getting anything done.

The social motivation for connection Is present in all of us from infancy and the need to be socially connected and the pleasure we take in caring for others extends beyond birth throughout our lives to the end of our days.  The severing of a social bond – whether it’s the end of a long term relationship or the death of a loved one – is one of the greatest risk factors for depression and anxiety.  Our social bonds are linked to how long we live.  Having a poor social network is literally as bad for your health as smoking 2 packs of cigarettes a day.


Mindreading is Lieberman’s term for comprehending the mental states of others.  Mindreading is what psychologists call theory of mind – the ability to understand that people’s thoughts and feelings drive their behaviors – and mentalizing – thinking about the mental states of others to understand the intentions and meanings of their behaviors. We are making educated guesses about what is going on in someone else’s mind.

Mindreading is “the inescapable curiosity and necessity to understand and predict others in terms of their intentional mental processes.  In every interaction we want to know what others are going to do based on how they are thinking and feeling.”

Lieberman says the capacity for mindreading is so ubiquitous and so easily adopted in daily life it is almost impossible to appreciate what an achievement it is. “Like fish who have no idea that they are in water because they are surrounded by it, mindreading is so basic to who we are that we rarely notice it.”

The human brain is capable of mentalizing by 4 years of age.  Not all people develop this capacity by the age of four, so we can be subject to other people’s assumptions and projections rather than accurate perceptions of what we are actually thinking.  But this capacity to know what someone else is thinking and feeling, and to know that they can be thinking and feeling something different from you, is what allows people to overcome their differences and work cooperatively and build soccer leagues, schools and skyscrapers.

Lieberman has found that mentalizing operates in the dorsal medial (upper-middle) pre-frontal cortex and temporal parietal junction, which is a separate neural circuitry from the lateral (to the side) pre-frontal cortex which supports rational thinking and working memory.  He then links mentalizing to the default network.  The brain at rest when it’s not doing anything in particular tends to default to social cognition.   Lieberman found that resting in the default network primes the brain to work better at tasks of mentalizing, but had no effect on non-social reasoning.

Default processing does happen spontaneously, unconsciously, all the time, but to be useful, mentalizing or comprehending the mental states of others must be conscious.  It requires conscious effort.  It requires the brain to show up and work.  If we are lazy, we take shortcuts.  Rather than figuring out what another person is actually feeling and checking in to see if our understanding is accurate, we assume, project, and transfer past experiences onto current situations.

“The mentalizing network does something incredibly special to facilitate our dealings with other people.  It allows us to peer inside the minds of those around, us, take into account their hopes, fears, goals, and intentions, and as a result interact with them much more effectively.  It allows us to figure out the psychological characteristics of people we see every day so we can better predict their reactions to novel situations and avoid unnecessary feather ruffling.  We use these abilities to achieve cooperatively things that we never could do on our own, as well as to strategically compete with those around us.  The mentalizing system allows us to filter our experience to figure out the best information to share with others and how to do it.  We would be absolutely lost without our all-purpose mindreading machine.”

Mentalizing and mirror neurons.

Since the discovery of mirror neurons by Italian neuroscientists in the early 1990’s, the functioning of mirror neurons has been subject to debate; controversies about mirror neurons remain unresolved to this day.  Lieberman posits that mirror neurons (more accurately, the mirror system) which we do share with other primates, operate from different systems of neural circuitry than mentalizing, which is exclusive to human beings.   Research evidence is solid that mirror neurons allow us to perceive another’s actions and the intentions of that action, thus laying the groundwork for learning new behaviors by imitation, and accelerating our cultural evolution.  And they may allow us to feel another’s pain – when we see someone being given an electrical shock, we instinctively wince ourselves.  So mirror neurons may play a role in empathy, feeling another’s emotional as well as physical pain (involving the dACC).

But mentalizing involves a different neural circuitry, the dorsal medial pre-frontal cortex.  When the DMPFC is activated, there is less activation of the dACC, and the mind is operating  at a different level.

Through mirror neurons we can perceive someone flicking a switch and perhaps understand the intention – to turn on a light.  But mentalizing is what understands the meaning of turning on the light – to study for an exam.  With mirror neurons we can perceive the what of an action and even learn how to perform that action, but we won’t understand the why.  Mentalizing is what gives us the why.  I can perceive your fingers moving up and down, I can even understand your behavior of typing. Mentalizing is what gives me the capacity to understand that you are writing a book, perhaps even understand why you are writing a book.

[An aside: in this section about mindreading, Lieberman offers a very interesting hypothesis about the cause of autism: the intense world hypothesis.  Scientists have discovered that, from very young age, autistic children have a larger amygdala – the brain’s fear center – than other children.  If there is an oversensitivity to world, there might be a sense of overwhelm from the world.  Autistic children would withdraw and isolate from world. At this tender developmental age, they might not be learning social cues and social behaviors that would support social engagement.  Autism is diagnosed by a lack of social engagement, but the condition might have prior cause in brain of oversensitivity to social engagement and then lack of development of capacities to handle social engagement.]


Eastern cultures tend to emphasize harmonizing more than we do in the “lone ranger” style cultivated in the West.  It is generally accepted in Japan or China, for instance, that only by being sensitive to what others are thinking and doing can we successfully harmonize with one another so that we may achieve more together than we can as individuals.

Lieberman approaches harmonizing through brain structures that promote self-knowledge and self-control, ensuring that we follow social norms and values rather than pushing our own personal destiny forward. We will tend to become more likable and agreeable to our group and strive to support our group, sometimes at expense of unsocialized impulses. These efforts ensure social harmonizing, which makes us more valuable to our group.  All of us operating with the same tendency to prioritize the group allows our group to thrive in the face of competing private interests that are ever present as well.

For some time, researchers have known that the medial pre-frontal cortex (MPFC) is the vehicle for self-recognition, self-awareness, self-knowing.  Lieberman has found that we use that same brain structure  – that processes our personal beliefs and values  – to take in the influence of other people’s beliefs and values.  I.e., the structure that assesses “I think I’m smart” is the structure that allows us to perceive, “My friends think I’m smart.”     We can think that our direct appraisal of ourselves is completely independent of others’ reflected appraisal of ourselves, but it is the same structure of the brain that is doing both appraisals.  Lieberman’s likens this overlap of functioning to a Trojan horse; we develop our personal sense of self consciously, but are unconsciously shaped by the norms and values of the culture we grow up in.  “The “self” is more of a super highway for social influence than it is the impenetrable personal fortress we believe it to be.”

Lieberman looks at the increasingly documented role of the right ventral medial pre-frontal cortex, sitting just below the MPFC in the brain which is what we use for self-awareness and social influence (which is just below the DMPFC which we use for mentalizing about the mental states of others) in self-control.  All kinds of self-control: motor control, cognitive control (delayed gratification) perspective taking, re-appraisal, affect labeling.  And posits that while we often think of self-control in terms of self-willpower, it functions just as steadily for self-restraint.  And that’s what helps our harmonizing.

He offers a lovely analysis of panoptic control: if we know or believe we are under surveillance by security cameras, we will restrain our unsocialized impulses to cheat or steal more than if not.  Even when there is simply an icon of being watched, we will “obey” society’s laws more readily.  When we have internalized society’s laws and norms and can evoke within ourselves a perception of how our behavior will be perceived by others, we will exercise our own self-restraint, simply because we know we are “seeable,” even if we are not directly being seen.  Of our own will, we fall in line with society’s expectations and norms.

It’s the right ventral medial pre-frontal cortex that is activated when we see a picture of our own face, reminding us of what we look like to the outside world; it’s the rVMPFC that is activated when we imagine what others think of us.  The same part of our brain that registers our view of our self is responsible for self-restraint and for compliance with social norms.   It’s possible that evolution linked these processes in order to ensure that we would use our fear of not fitting in socially to engage our capacity to override our more indulgent self-interests.

Lieberman suggests that how we form our goals and beliefs and what causes us to exert self-control, this alignment between our private beliefs and the beliefs around us, is what motivates us to harmonize and become useful members of society.

Lieberman devotes the last section of his book to applications of learning about the social brain to our larger world.

“Our schools, companies, sports teams, military, government, and health care institutions cannot reach their full potential while working from erroneous theories that characterize our social nature incorrectly.”


Neural Focus Groups

Measuring activity of the medial pre-frontal cortex, which processes the influence of society on personal values and choices, can more accurately predict which advertisements – for quitting smoking or using sunscreen – people actually act on, than their less accurate self-reports.

Common Rooms in Apartment Buildings

Approximately one-third of all Americans live in apartments; usually apartment complexes provide only individual apartments, not common space areas for people to gather and socialize.  Lieberman cites the benefits of common space areas in college dormitories where freshmen get to make new friends and learn the ropes of their new life away from home. He suggests offering tax breaks to apartment building owners to convert one apartment per floor to common space “social brain” areas.

Social Learning in the Classroom

Social pain – being bullied, feeling like an outsider – has a powerful, negative impact on students’ grades and overall academic performance.  Likewise, social reward – an increased sense of belonging – has a powerful, positive impact on students’ grades and overall academic performance. Encouraging student to teach other students has been shown to dramatically improve memory retention for years afterwards. Lieberman suggests incorporating social learning into all academic subjects rather than excluding it, punishing it, or privileging the non-social reasoning, particularly in middle schools and high schools when students learning how to relate and sort out their “place in the pack” is the dominant developmental task.


[all quotes taken from the book Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect]Most of us have been taught that our bigger brains evolved to enable us to do abstract reasoning, which promoted agriculture, mathematics, and engineering as complex tools to solve the basic problems of survival.  But increasing evidence suggest that one of the primary drivers behind our brains becoming enlarged was to facilitate our social cognitive skills – our ability to interact and get along well with others.  All these years, we’ve assumed the smartest among us have particularly strong analytical skills.  But from an evolutionary perspective, perhaps the smartest among us are actually those with the best social skills.While we tend to think it is our capacity for abstract reasoning that is responsible for Homo sapiens’ dominating the planet, there is increasing evidence that our dominance as a species may be attributable to our ability to think socially.  The greatest ideas almost always require teamwork to bring them to fruition; social reasoning is what slows us to build and maintain the social relationships and infrastructure needed for teams to thrive.

These adaptations intensify the bonds we feel with those around us and increase our capacity to predict what is going on in the minds of others so that we can better coordinate and cooperate with them….to the extent that we can characterize evolution as designing our modern brains, this is what our brains were wired for: reaching out to and interacting with others.  These are design features, not flaws.  These social adaptation are central to making us the most successful species on earth.

* * * * *

Mentalizing is one of the signature achievements of the human mind, one that separates us from all others species.  Along with our capacities for language and abstract thinking, mentalizing is the primary reason we live in homes with air-conditioning and communicate over tiny wireless devices.  No business, classroom, or friendship can thrive without this miraculous mental process.  Mentalizing allows us to imagine not only what other people are thinking or feeling right now but also how they would react to nearly any event in the future.  It even allows us to consider how their reactions would change as their development, interests, or circumstances change….In little ways, every day, we use mindreading to anticipate the desires and worries of the people in our lives and act to make their lives a bit better.  When we are lucky, they do the same for us.  Over the course of a lifetime, making sense of the thoughts and intentions of others can be the difference between increased happiness and social connection or escalating loneliness and frustration.    Our ability to mentalize is the difference between social pain and pleasure being random occurrences and their being destinations that we can navigate toward or away from.

* * * * *

Self-control to us feels like a source of power – the willpower that allows us to drive our personal agenda forward.  It may be easily depleted, but it has the unique capacity of overriding our momentary desires in order to implement our personal long-term goals.  But as we have seen, our personal, long-term goals nearly always benefit society as much as or more than they benefit ourselves.  And where there is a conflict between our personal values and those of society, simply being reminded that we can be seen and judged by others activates our panoptic self-control to override our impulses, bringing our behavior in line with societal expectations.

These are very counterintuitive notions.  The idea that our personal values were snuck into us by society at large and that our self-control exists in part to restrain, rather than support, the self is anathema to our way of thinking about “who we are.”  Yet brain science is helping us to see the fundamental truth behind these claims – that our most deeply personal sense of self and sources of willpower may most often service to keep us in the good graces of the group.  Harmonizing is hard work, but apparently evolution thought it was worth it to make our attitude and beliefs aligned with those of the group rather than at odds with them.


Most of Lieberman’s stories come in the form of describing lab experiments and discussing outcome data.  Lieberman states his intention to write more like a novelist than an academic; the stories and examples are eminently readable.  Even new ideas about how our brains work are very graspable.  He also did an excellent job placing his research in the context of previous research, showing the evolution of scientific theory.

* * * * *

To research everyday mindreading, Fritz Heider showed people a short animation of two triangles and a circle moving around, and then he asked people what they saw.  People saw drama.  “The big triangle is a bully that is picking on the small triangle and circle, who are running scared but then figure out how to trick the big triangle and escape.”  Or “The big triangle is a jealous boyfriend of the female circle, and he is angry because he caught the circle flirting with the small triangle.

Everyone saw thoughts, feelings, and intentions in these shapes that clearly had none – shapes don’t have minds!  We see thinking, feeling minds everywhere around us: we treat our computers, cars, and even the weather as if they have minds of their own. This over-generalized tendency to see minds behind events in the physical world presumable evolved to make sure we do not accidentally overlook the actual minds of other people.  Actual minds are hidden, after all.  It would be awfully easy to miss them if we weren’t built to notice them.

* * * * *

A few years ago, Emily Falk and I became interested in that goes on in our minds when we are first exposed to information that might be relevant to other people. Do we initially take in information in a purely self-interested manner, focused how the information is useful or enjoyable for us?  We wondered if perhaps people are always filtering new information to see how it might be useful or enjoyable to others we might share it with.  Being the bearer of good news or the teller of good stories is a great way to become more socially connected.

To examine this, we had people lie in a scanner while we showed them information about possible television pilot ideas (that is, ideas for new shows).  We made up these pilots, and we showed people titles, descriptions, and iconic mages for each show.  After participants got out of the scanner, they had a chance to share their views on which shows should receive further consideration and which should be canned.  They were asked to imagine they were interns working at a television network helping to triage the submissions so producers could spend their time considering only the best ideas.

We were interest in what was happening in the brain of an intern, the first person seeing the information about the pilot, as it related to whether the intern would share that idea successfully enough such that the producer would be excited to pass the idea on even further.  When interns saw an idea that they would later pass on effectively, ensuring that it would spread beyond the producer, the mantalizing system lit up like a Christmas tree.

We might have expected reasoning or memory systems to be associated with this effect because committing the idea to memory would seem to help a person communicate better about it later.  But instead, we saw the mentalizing system.  This suggests that even at the moment we are first taking in new information, part of what we do is consider whom we can share the information with and how we can share it in a compelling way given the individuals we chose to share it with.  One region within the mentalizing system was more active in those participants who were in general better at selling their ideas to others.  These findings suggest that, much more than we realize, the mentalizing system is always at work filtering the influx of information we are exposed to each day and selecting for what we should be passing on to others, to help them and to enhance our social connections with them.  Mindreading promotes connection.


Imagine in the break room at work, there is an “honesty box” where you are meant to pay for whatever drink you take from the fridge.  There is a poster on the wall indicating the price of each drink; you are meant to drop that amount in the honesty box.  No one else is in the room with you, and you don’t hear any footsteps coming toward you.  Do you pay for your drink?  If so, how much?  Would it matter if the poster on the wall had some pictures of flowers on it?  How about if the poster had a picture of a pair of eyes on it?  Not real eyes, not a security camera – just a photograph of someone’s eyes, eyes that can in no way actually see what you are doing.  Compared to the flower-adorned poster, the one with the eyes led people to pay 276 percent more into the honesty box.  In a public cafeteria, a similar “eyes poster” nearly halved the amount of littering that people did.


Do One Social Thing a Day[from the book:]”In one study, volunteering was associated with greater well-being, and for people who volunteered at least once a week, the increase in their well-being was equivalent to the increase associated with moving from a $20,000-a-year salary to a $75,000-a-year salary.  A second study found that across more than 100 countries, giving to charity is related to changes in well-being equivalent to the doubling of one’s salary.  Another study found having a friend, whom you see on most days, compared to not having such a friend, had the same impact on well-being as making an extra $100,000 a year.  Being married is also worth an extra $100,000, while being divorced is on par with having your salary slashed by $90,000.  Just seeing your neighbor regularly is like making an extra $60,000.  By far, the most valuable nonmonetary asset researchers examined was physical health, with “good” health compared to “not good” health equivalent to about a $400,000 salary bonus.

“The good new is that building more “social” into our lives is very cost-effective – getting coffee with a friend, talking to a neighbor, or volunteering won’t make your wallet light and could significantly improve your life.  The bad news is that as a society, we’re blowing it.  Over the last half-century, there has been a steady decline in nearly all things social apart from social media.  People are significantly less likely to be married today than they were fifty years ago.  We volunteer less, participate in fewer social groups, and entertain people in our homes less often than we used to.

“To me the most troubling statistics focus on our friendships.  In a survey given in 1985, people were asked to list their friends in response to the question, “Over the last six months, who are the people with whom you discussed matters important to you?”  The most common number of friends listed was three; 59 percent of respondents listed three or more friends fitting this description  The same survey was given again in 2004.  This time the most common number of friends listed was zero.  And only 37 percent of respondents listed three or more friends.  Back in 1985, only 10 percent indicated that they had zero confidants.  In 2004, this number skyrocketed to 25 percent.  One out of every four of us is walking around with no one to share our lives with.  Being social makes our lives better.  Yet every indication is that we are getting less social, not more.

In my workshops I teach participants to Do One Scary Thing a Day to help their brains get over the signal anxiety when they are about to do something new.  Perhaps doing one social thing a day could also be the one scary thing a day, and just as important for strengthening our resilience and well-being.

In the coming week, try doing one new social thing a day, noticing and savoring any increased well-being:

– meet a friend for coffee or a walk in the neighborhood

– call a friend you haven’t seen in a while and simply catch up

– volunteer at a local recycling center or after-school tutoring program

– join a book club or a bowling league

– introduce yourself to someone new in your apartment building

– say hello to folks you pass on the street or in the hallway

Be more social once a day for a week, and notice a change in your sense of your self and connection to your world.


Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired To Connect by Matthew Lieberman, PhD.   Crown Publishers, New York. 2013Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, PhD.  Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, New York. 2011.  Kahneman won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2002. The book won the Best Book Award from National Academy of Sciences in 2012, and the New York Times Review voted it one of the best books of 2011.  Kahneman explores two systems in the brain for processing information and making decisions, one fast, intuitive and emotional, the other slow, deliberate, and logical.Social Physics: How Good Ideas Spread by Alex Pentland, PhD.  Penguin Press, New York. 2014.  Pentland is  director of MIT’s Human Dynamics Laboratory.. Peer influence on our behavior – trying something new because our peers are doing it, is a powerful incentive on our behavior.  We are moved to act as our peers are acting, because of the ties that bind us, even when we’re not aware of it.

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