When I say in this blog that we are social creatures, I’m being quite literal. Our brains are physically wired to be social. Each one of us has an interpersonal neurobiology that responds to the world around us.
When we see others experience a situation or emotion, our brain has the ability put us into the situation or emotional state that we’re witnessing. It’s the basis of empathy, of interactive media and art, of learning. I believe it’s also the basis for creating social goods.
How Does Interpersonal Neurobiology Work?
The human brain contains billions of neurons. These are the nodes of our mental network. They are electrically active. When looked at in a scanner, neurons are said to “light up” on the display.
There are several types of neurons. When we sense something–through smell or touch or sight–sensory neurons activate. When we move our bodies, motor neurons light up. Interneurons connect groups of neurons together.
Human brains also contain mirror neurons. These neurons activate when we perform an action and when we see another person doing that action.
For instance, when we cry, certain neurons in our brain light up. Then, because of mirror neurons, if we see someone else crying, our own crying neurons light up. In our brain, there can be very little difference between us crying and seeing someone else crying.
Mirror neurons may be an evolutionary adaption that helped our species survive. We humans, as individual creatures, are comparatively weak and defenseless. Mirror neurons would help us recognize when a fellow clan member is in danger and potentially come to their aid, because we can mentally and emotionally perceive ourselves being in the same situation.
Mirror neurons also recognize positive emotions in others. We can feel their happiness. I think this forms a biological basis for our innate sense of fairness. If we see someone else receiving a reward, we can be happy for them. But, if it’s a reward that we also deserve, then we can experience an emotional response of anger, envy, or jealousy at being deprived.
Wired For Altruism
Knowing that one of our family, clan, or tribe is, or soon will be, in danger gives us the chance to help out. This potential potential for cooperation helps us be greater together than we are apart.
Of course, we’ll have to decide whether helping is worth any possible cost or risk. As I’ve written about in another post, we’re possibly wired for altruism as well–deciding to help someone else despite the personal cost or risk.
Researchers have shown that people who are highly altruistic–for example, those who donated one of their kidneys to a total stranger–also had amygdala that were 20 percent larger than average.
The amygdala is the part of the brain governing memory, decision making, and emotional responses.
Conversely, sociopaths had amygdala that were 20 percent smaller than average.
So, there’s a connection between the wiring in our brains and social behavior.
When you combine mirror neurons and amygdala, you get an interpersonal neurobiology that can recognize when a fellow creature is in need and then decide to do something to help, even if it’s personally costly.
Interpersonal Neurobiology Drives Social Goods
Our natural wiring for a social nature forms the basis and motivation for designing and distributing social goods.
When we overcome a problem and / or see others struggling with the same problem, some of us have the impulse to design and distribute a solution.
Also, we can see someone else having a problem and understand that their problem will impact us, so that it’s in our interest to help.
Plus, what goes around, comes around. Others have the ability to sense our struggles and devise solutions to help.
For instance, if I see someone in my group has a disease, my motor neurons help me sense that they feel miserable and are possibly facing disability or death. Thus, it makes sense for me and the group if I support ways to keep that person healthy even if it costs me something.
The same reasoning applies to food and shelter and public safety. And, you can also extrapolate this reasoning to higher-level needs such as education, employment, and belonging.