‘Nothing is perfect. Life is messy. Relationships are complex. Outcomes are uncertain. People are irrational’ – Hugh Mackay

Social Cognitive Neuroscience is a discipline which deals with ‘how the human brain deals with the world.’ Findings from this field have repeatedly reinforced the conclusion that our brains are wired to connect with other people. Humans are wired with another set of interests that are just as basic as physical pain and pleasure – to be social. We are driven by deep motivations to stay connected with friends and family. We are naturally curious about what is going on in the minds of other people. And our identities are formed by the values lent to us from the groups we call our own. These connections lead to strange behaviors that violate our expectation of rational self-interest and make sense only if our social nature is taken as a starting point for who we are.

Societal institutions are founded, implicitly or explicitly, on a worldview of how humans function. These are theories regarding the gears and levers of our nature that institutions try to operate on in order to strengthen society. 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.

George Shulman, in 1997, in a path breaking paper published in the Jounal of Cognitive Neuroscience, asked a question, ‘What is more active in the brain when one is not doing one of cognitive, motor, or visual tasks?’ Why do we have brain regions that become more active when our minds go on a ‘time-out’, that is, when we are not doing anything in particular? It makes sense that areas of the brain involved in motor skills would quiet down when you finish doing a task that involves motor skills. But why would some regions of the brain systematically become more active when you are finishing a motor task—the same regions that become more active when you are finishing a visual task or a math problem? The early name given to describe the network was the ‘task-induced deactivation network’ because it turned off in response to so many different kinds of tasks. In other words, tasks induce this network to turn off. The second name given to this network was the ‘default network’ (or ‘default mode network’). This name has stuck with neuroscientists. It refers to the fact that the network comes on by default when other tasks are finished.

Go ahead and close your eyes for thirty seconds. If you did, your mind probably darted around from one thought, feeling, or image to another. Instead of being at rest, your mind was highly active. If you are like most people, you thought about other people, yourself, or both. In other words, you engaged in social cognition, which is simply another way of describing thinking about other people, oneself, and the relation of oneself to other people.

Neuroscientifically, there are three stages of inter personal connectivity:-

Connection: The capacity to feel social pains and pleasures, forever linking our well-being to our social connectedness. Infants embody this deep need to stay connected, The human child is the most vulnerable of all species and totally dependant on a caregiver for survival and this need for connection remains present through our entire lives.

Mindreading: To understand the actions and thoughts of those around us, enhancing our ability to stay connected and interact strategically. In the toddler years, forms of social thinking develop that outperform those seen in the adults of any other species. This capacity allows humans to create groups that can implement nearly any idea and to anticipate the needs and wants of those around us, keeping our groups moving smoothly.

Harmonizing: Although the sense of self may appear to be a mechanism for distinguishing us from others and perhaps accentuating our selfishness, the self actually operates as a powerful force for social cohesiveness. During the preteen and teenage years, adolescents focus on their selves and in the process become highly socialized by those around them. Whereas connection is about our desire to be social, harmonizing refers to the neural adaptations that allow group beliefs and values to influence our own.

Relationships are between caregiver (parent) and child, between siblings and between friends. If you think logically, friendship is a quirky phenomenon. Every friend begins as a stranger, typically someone we share no genes with, possibly representing an unknown threat. And yet this person may be someone we ultimately choose to disclose our innermost secrets and vulnerabilities to, or depend on more than anyone else in the world.

Friendship has been documented in only a few species, but it is nearly universal in humans. Perhaps we can acquire more resources if we have friends. Perhaps they can be seen as a means to an end. If so, we should keep track in any friendship of how much we give and receive in order to ensure that we are getting our due (and hopefully more). Yet the closer friends become, the less they tend to keep track of who has done more or less for one another. Often, a friend’s primary value is the comfort of knowing we have friends. Despite the various ways friends can be directly useful to us, the fact that our friends are our friends is often an end in itself.

And then there is Facebook. There are more than a billion people with Facebook accounts. What Facebook does provide is an efficient way to stay connected with the people in our lives. It allows us to keep in touch with people we don’t get to see as often as we want or to reconnect with people from our past or to relive the fun of last night’s party with all our friends who were there. The single most successful destination on the Internet, or anywhere else, is a place entirely dedicated to our social lives. Man is a social animal. And relationships are a part of the neural evolutionary process.

If we shift from neuroscience to psycholinguistics – relationship is a the nominalised form of the verb ‘to relate’. The two meanings of ‘relate’ are – make or show a connection between and feel sympathy for or identify with. So essentially relationships work ONLY when you either make or show a connection or feel sympathy or identify with people. It is a process and does not survive being passive. Till the time you are active, you are relating, and there is movement. As soon as you sit back on the sofa, and expect to be served, the movement is gone and soon you with be left with just the word and nothing in it.

So if you have relationship problems – look within. You will find a lack of movement. Either from you, or from the person you have the problem with. And unless both want it to move forward – it won’t! So if someone comes to you and asks you, ‘How do I maintain a wonderful relationship?’ – tell them, ‘you can’t! The responsibility lies with both the people. Single handedly you cannot maintain a relationship.’ Because it’s neurologically not possible.

Unless of course, you are hallucinating. You will find, that a lot of people are.

Leave a Comment