A Paradigm Shift in Research About Human Nature

In the convening meeting of the Project for the Advancement of our Common Humanity (PACH), Niobe Way encouraged us with the reminder that though we live in a culture that “privileges autonomy or self-sufficiency over relationships, the self over community, and individual interests over the common good” that there is also “a paradigm shift occurring as researchers converge in the recognition that humans are by nature empathic, cooperative, social beings.” We want and need close relationships to thrive as humans, and researchers from across the spectrum of the human sciences are helping us to see through the fog of cultural traditions that have worked to isolate and separate us from each other.

In an Atlantic article announcing the release of Matthew Leiberman’s book, Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect, Emily Esfahani Smith reviewed a range of the kind of research Way was referencing, research from neuroscience to economics and experimental social science to anthropology. Each reported study concluded that there are immediate benefits to happiness, health, and satisfaction when humans connect with other humans. Together, the research makes a strong case that humans are indeed social animals with drives for connection, much like those for survival.

Smith’s article, Social Connection Makes a Better Brain, is worth a read as a whole. Here are a few highlights:

  •       Matthew Leiberman’s neuroscience research has led him to conclude that when the brain is in a relaxed state it has the same activity as when the brain is actively working out social relationships. He is quoted in the article to report: “The [brain’s] default network directs us to think about other people’s minds—their thoughts, feelings, and goals.” In other words, our brain’s default setting is to focus on social relationships.
  •       Anthropologist Robin Dunbar’s work has led her to the conclusion that the size of humans’ brains is related to our inherent social nature. From an evolutionary standpoint, human ancestors with the brain size closest to ours were also the first to have “division of labor (they worked together to hunt), central campsites, and they may have been the first to bury their dead.”
  •       Leiberman and Naomi Eisenberger have also conducted studies involving the emotion of social rejection and loss in gaming scenarios, concluding: “To the brain, social pain feels a lot like physical pain—a broken heart can feel like a broken leg…The more rejected the participant said he or she felt, the more activity there was in the part of the brain that processes the distress of physical pain.”