Mike Kueber's Blog

April 8, 2014

Sunday Book Review #131 – Social by Matthew Lieberman

Filed under: Book reviews — Mike Kueber @ 2:33 am
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Last week, one of my yoga instructors posted on Facebook a poster showing a multitude of thoughts that typical yogis have during savasana. For you non-yogis, savasana is the 5-minute period at the end of class when the practitioners are supposed to relax flat on their backs in the so-called corpse position and clear their minds, but as the poster suggests, many minds drift toward a wide variety of mundane subjects. I commented as follows on the posting:

  • Coincidentally, I’m reading a book titled Social that argues our brain is hard-wired to immediately shift to thinking about personal relationships whenever it isn’t being required to do any more important brain work (motor, memory, visual discrimination). The author believes the brain defaults to thinking about relationships because there is nothing more important to achieving a successful life. Interesting.”

So, although the book provides some support for the poster’s position that people don’t naturally shift into an empty-headed meditative state, it suggest that most of the thoughts would not involve hard-thinking, but rather would naturally gravitate toward personal relationships.

My Facebook comment was made after reading only the introductory chapters of the book. Sadly, the remainder of the book wasn’t as interesting because Lieberman pivoted into discussing the neuroscience that supported his introductory statements. The neuroscience, much reliant on a new technique called fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging), supported three ways that the human brain is wired to be social:

  1. Connection – Maslow’s pyramid is wrong because social needs often trump physiological and safety needs.
  2. Mindreading – a person’s brain probably spends more than 10,000 hours on trying to figure out how others think before it is ten-years old, thus more than satisfying Gladwell’s standard for achieving excellence.
  3. Harmonizing – the human brain has developed a natural tendency for getting along with those we encounter.

Lieberman also refers to other scientists who have done related work, including two whom I discussed years earlier in my blog:

  • Psychologist Daniel Pink in his book Drive discusses why American business needs to move away from the carrot-and-stick approach to motivation and shift toward jobs that satisfy a person’s innate psychological need for competence, autonomy, and relatedness. (During my City Council campaign, I was often asked at forums why I wanted the job, and I used Pink’s formulation – i.e, the job would challenge my abilities, afford me two years of complete autonomy, and consist of highly important work.)
  • Nobel Prize-winning economist Daniel Kahneman in his book Thinking Fast and Slow discusses how the brain tends to think quickly and instinctually with amazing success, but sometimes this leads to serious errors. Therefore, people need to train their brain in certain situations to override the quick, instinctual thinking and instead rely on analytical, thoughtful decision-making.

In his conclusion, Lieberman tries to apply his findings in practical ways to improve our personal lives, our work lives, and our failing schools. Unfortunately, he is a scientist and practical applications are not his forte.

Social is an important book, especially as a supplement to Pink’s and Kahneman’s.


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