The social brain

My editorial on You Tube

I am thinking about my opening lectures in the coming semester. I am trying to phrase out sort of a baseline philosophy of mine, underlying all or most of what I teach, i.e. microeconomics, management, political systems, international economic relations, and economic policy. Certainly, my most fundamental message to my students is: watch reality in a scientific way. Get the hell above clichés, first impressions and tribal thinking. Reach for the information that most other people don’t, and process it rigorously. You will see that once you really mean it, scientific method is anything but boring. When you really swing that Ockham’s razor with dexterity, and cut out the bullshit, you can come to important existential realizations.

Science starts with observation. Social sciences start with the observation of what people do, and what people do consists very largely in doing something with other people. We are social beings, we do things in recurrent sequences of particular actions, sequences that we have learnt and that we keep on learning. Here I come to an interesting point, namely to what I call the « action and reaction paradigm » and what is a slightly simplistic application of the Newtonian principle labelled with the same expression. It goes more or less like: what people do is a reaction to what happens. There is a ‘yes-but’ involved. Yes, people do things in reaction to what happens, but you need to add the component of temporal sequence. People do things in reaction to everything relevant that has happened within their span of memory connected to the particular phenomenon in question.

This is a fundamental distinction. If I say ‘I do what I do in reaction to what is happening now’, my claim is essentially different from saying that ‘I do what I do as a learnt response to all the things which I know to have happened so far and which my brain considers as relevant for the case’. Two examples come to my mind: social conflicts, and technological change. When a social conflict unfolds, would it be a war between countries, a civil war, or a sharp rise in political tension, the first, superficial interpretation is that someone has just done something annoying, and the other someone just couldn’t refrain themselves from reacting, and it all ramped up to the point of being out of control. In this approach, patterns of behaviour observable in social conflicts are not really patterns, in the sense that they are not really predictable. There is a strong temptation to label conflictual behaviour as more or less random and chaotic, devoid of rationality.

Still, here, social sciences come with a firm claim: anything we do is a learnt, recurrent pattern of doing things. Actions that we take in a situation of conflict are just as much a learnt, repetitive strategy as any other piece of behaviour. Some could argue: ‘But how is it possible that people who have very seldom been aggressive in the past suddenly develop whole patterns of aggressive behaviour? And in the case of whole social groups? How can they learn being aggressive if there has not been conflict before?’. Well, this is one of the wonders observable in human culture. Culture is truly like a big virtual server. There are things stored in our culture – and by ‘things’ I mean, precisely, patterns of behaviour – which we could have hardly imagined to be there. We accumulate information over weeks, months, and years, and, all of a sudden, a radical shift in our behaviour occurs. We have tendency to consider such a brusque shift as insanity, but this usually not the case. As long as the newly manifested set of actions is coherent around an expected outcome, this is a new, subjectively rational strategy that we have just picked up from the cultural toolbox.

Cultural memory is usually much longer in its backwards reach than individual memory. If the right set of new information is being input into the life of a social group, or of an individual, centuries-old strategies can suddenly pop up. It works like a protocol: ‘OK, we have now enough information accumulated in this file so as to trigger the strategy AAA’. Different cultures have different toolboxes stored in them, and yet, the simple tools of social conflict are almost omnipresent. Wherever any tribe has ever had to fight for its hunting grounds, the corresponding patterns of whacking-the-other-over-the-head-with-that-piece-of-rock are stored in the depths of culture, most fundamentally in language.

Yes, the language we use is a store of information about how to do things. Never have looked at the thing like that? Just think: the words and expressions we use describe something that happens in our brain in response to accumulated sensory experience. Usually we have less words at hand than different things to designate. In all the abundance of our experience just some among its pieces become dignified enough to have their own words.  For a word or expression to form as part of a language, generations need to recapitulate their things of life. This is how language becomes an archive of strategies. The information it conveys is like a ZIP file in a computer: it is tightly packed, and requires some kind of semantic crowbar in order to become fully accessible and operational. The crowbar is precisely the currently absorbed experience.

Right, so we can get to fighting each other even without special training, as we have the basic strategies stored in the language we speak. And technological change? How do we innovate? When we shift towards some new technology, do we also use old patterns of behaviour conveyed in our cultural heritage? Let’s see… Here is a little intellectual experiment I use to run with my students, when we talk about innovation and technological change. Look around you. Look at all those things that surround you and which, fault of a better word, you call ‘civilisation’. Which of those things would you change, like improve or replace with something else, possibly better?

Now comes an interesting, stylized fact that I can observe in that experiment. Sometimes, I hold my classes in a big conference room, furnished in a 19th – centurish style, and equipped with a modern overhead projector attached to the ceiling. When I ask my students whether they would like to innovate with that respectable, sort of traditional furniture, they give me one of those looks, as if I were out of my mind. ‘What? Change these? But this is traditional, this is chic, this is… I don’t know, it has style!’. On the other hand, virtually each student is eager to change the overhead projector for a new(er) one.

Got it? In that experiment, people would rather change things that are already changing at an observably quick pace. The old and steady things are being left out of the scope of innovation. The 100% rational approach to innovation suggests something else: if you want to innovate, start with the oldest stuff, because it seems to be the most in need of some shake-off. Yet, the actual innovation, such as we can observe it in the culture around us, goes the other way round: it focuses on innovating in things which are already being innovated with.

Got it? Most of what we call innovation is based on a millennia-old pattern of behaviour called ‘joining the fun’. We innovate because we join an observable trend towards innovating. Yes, there are some minds, like Edison or Musk, who start innovating apparently from scratch, when there is no passing wagon to jump on. Thus, we have two patterns of innovation: joining a massively observable trend of change, or starting a new trend. The former is clear in its cultural roots. It has always been fun to join parties, festivities and public executions. The latter is more interesting in its apparent obscurity. What is the culturally rooted pattern of doing something completely new?

Easy, man, easy. Let’s do it step by step. When we perceive something as ‘completely new’, it means there are two sets of phenomena: one made of things that look old, and the other looking new. In other words, we experience cognitive dissonance. Certain things look out of date when, after having been experiencing them as functional, we start experiencing them as no more up to facing the situation at hand. We experience their dissonance as compared to other things of life. This is called perceived obsolescence.

Anything is perceived as completely new only if there is something obsolete to compare with. Let’s generalise it mathematically. There are two sets of phenomena, which I can probably define as two strings of data. I say ‘strings’, and not ‘lists’, on the account of that data being complex. Well, yes: data about real life is complex. In terms of digital technology, our experience is made of strings (not to confound with that special type of beachwear).

And so I have those two strings, and I keep using and reusing them. With time, I notice that I need to add new data, from my ongoing experience, to one of the strings, whilst the other one stays the same. With even more time, as my first string of data gets new pieces of information, i.e. new memory, that other string slowly turns from ‘the same’ into ‘old school’, then into ‘retro’, and finally into ‘that old piece of junk’. This is learning by experiencing cognitive dissonance.

We have, then, two cultural patterns of technological change. The more commonly practiced one consists in the good old ‘let’s join the fun’ sequence of actions. Willing to do things together with other people is simple, universal, and essentially belongs to the very basis of each culture. The much rarer pattern consists in becoming aware of a cognitive dissonance and figuring out something new. This is interesting. Some cultural patterns are like screwdrivers or duck-tape. Sooner or later most people use it. Other models of behaviour, whilst still rooted in our culture, are sort of harder to dig out of that abyssal toolbox. Just some people do it.

I am coming back to that « action and reaction paradigm ». Yes, we act in reaction to what happens, but what happens, happens over time, and the ‘time’ part is vital here. We act in reaction to the information that our brain collects, and when enough information has been collected, it triggers a pre-learnt, culturally rooted pattern of behaviour, and this is our action. In response to basically the same set of data available in the environment, different human beings pull different patterns of action out of the cultural toolbox. This is interesting: how exactly is it happening? I mean, how exactly this differentiation of response to environment occurs?

There is that article I have just found on Science Direct, by Porcelli et al. (2018[1]). The paper puts together quite a cartload of literature concerning the link between major mental disorders – schizophrenia (SCZ), Alzheimer’s disease (AD) and major depressive disorder (MDD) – and their corresponding impairments in social behaviour. More specifically, the authors focus on the correlation between the so-called social withdrawal (i.e. abnormal passivity in social relations), and the neurological pathways observable in these three mental disorders. One of the theoretical conclusions they draw regards what they call ‘the social brain’. The social brain is a set of neurological pathways recurrently correlated with particular patterns of social behaviour.

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, it means that what is observable outside, has its counterpart inside. There is a hypothetical way that human brains can work – a hypothetical set of sequences synaptic activations observable in our neurons – to make the best of social relations, something like a neurological general equilibrium. I have just coined up that term by analogy to general economic equilibrium. Anything outside that sort of perfect model is less efficient in terms of social relations, and so it goes all the way down to pathological behaviour connected with pathological neural pathways. Porcelli et al. go even as far as quantifying the economic value of pathological behaviour grounded in pathological mental impairment. By analogy, there is a hypothetical economic value attached to any recurrent, neural pathway.

Going reeeaally far this speculative avenue, our society can look completely different if we change the way our brain works.

I am consistently delivering good, almost new science to my readers, and love doing it, and I am working on crowdfunding this activity of mine. As we talk business plans, I remind you that you can download, from the library of my blog, the business plan I prepared for my semi-scientific project Befund  (and you can access the French version as well). You can also get a free e-copy of my book ‘Capitalism and Political Power’ You can support my research by donating directly, any amount you consider appropriate, to my PayPal account. You can also consider going to my Patreon page and become my patron. If you decide so, I will be grateful for suggesting me two things that Patreon suggests me to suggest you. Firstly, what kind of reward would you expect in exchange of supporting me? Secondly, what kind of phases would you like to see in the development of my research, and of the corresponding educational tools?

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[1] Porcelli, S., Van Der Wee, N., van der Werff, S., Aghajani, M., Glennon, J. C., van Heukelum, S., … & Posadas, M. (2018). Social brain, social dysfunction and social withdrawal. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews

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