I find the social science of the brain to be a very interesting topics, which means I read a lot of books about it. It is a fairly new science, and scientists admit that there is still a lot to learn, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take what is known and apply it to the way we work.
Work, by its definition, involves other people. So, the more you know about how other people think, the more you can tailor your work in a manner that will be more likely to be positively accepted by the people you work with.
Our social connections are necessary for our survival – not just at work, but in life. If you think about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, the lowest level is the physiological stuff, and then comes safety, and next is social. Without social connections, you can’t move up into the hierarch where you get into esteem and self-actualization.
Default Mode Network
And the science supports this idea. There is a region in our brain called the Default Mode Network. This are of the brain becomes active whenever you think about people and your relationship to them. Science shows that 2 day old babies have this Default Mode Network. They don’t have social networks yet, but their brain is already wired for them.
When everything is going well, there is nothing to worry about. But lets be honest – most of us don’t go for very long without running into some kind of social pain. A fight with a spouse. A misunderstanding with a co-worker. Feeling like someone else is getting credit for something we did. Somehow, we don’t always give this the same amount of weight we give physical pain. But, the science proves otherwise. Your brain doesn’t distinguish between physical pain and social pain.
When you have a stomach ache or a headache, you attribute them to a specific part of your body. But, we know from hundreds (or more) of examples that placebos can treat these physical ailments which means that the stomach ache was really in your brain, not your stomach. So, just because social pain doesn’t have a physical spot on your body that you can point to, doesn’t mean it isn’t as real to your brain.
So, keep this in mind the next time you get into a tussle with someone. For both of you, the pain felt is as real as if you had stubbed your toe. Give yourself the grace and space to deal with the pain. Give the other person the same.
Your Brain Determines Your Tolerance For Pain
Science also shows that there is a genetic reason that some people seem to be able to deal with pain better than others. We all have a mu-opioid receptor that determines how we feel and handle pain. Depending on which receptor you get, you will be more or less sensitive to pain. Its funny because I think humans have known this for a long time even though we’ve just recently gotten the science to prove it.
Have you ever heard someone say “I’ve got a high tolerance for pain?” While someone else may say “I’ve got a low tolerance for pain?”
I’d bet if we tested those two people, we’d find that they have different mu-opioid receptors. I think they key takeaway here is that if someone else has a lower or higher tolerance for pain – which includes social pain – you should remember that it is genetic. No different than the color of their eyes. Rather than spending time judging them, recognize the difference and understand that we are all genetically driven when it comes to tolerating pain.
Theory of the Mind
Another area that brain science has made strides in recently is the development of a concept called Theory of the Mind. Theory of the Mind is this thing that happens when we realize that other people have their own thoughts that drive their behavior. We can understand that what another person believes is driven by their own experiences and beliefs. So, for example, when you are in a small store and you walk up to the counter to pay, you understand in your mind that the store employee will interpret you standing there to mean you are ready to check out so they will stop stalking the shelf and come over to ring you up. Neither of you had to tell the other what you were thinking. Your Theory of Mind allowed you both to draw conclusion s about what each other would conclude.
The interesting thing is that we aren’t born with this ability. Scientists have conducted a study to prove this. Sally and Anne are in a room with a basket and a box. A 3 year old is observing. Sally puts a marble in the basket and walks out of the room. Anne moves the marble to the box, and then Sally returns to the room. Where will Sally look for the marble. You and I would say she will look in the basket since that is where she left it and wouldn’t know that Ann had moved it. That is Theory of Mind at work. You and I can separate what Sally is thinking and how she is likely to behave from what we know to be true. But, when scientists asked the 3 year old, they say she will look in the box. Since they know it is in the box, they can’t separate the action they would take from the action Sally will take based on her experience.
It is fascinating to think about how much of our social interaction each day is driven by Theory of Mind. Start observing when you are using Theory of Mind to recognize when another person’s behavior is being driven by beliefs that differ from your own or that don’t line up with your reality.
And, lastly, closely aligned with this is the idea of mirror neurons. This is some of the newest science and is still really being disputed in the scientific community. But, what current studies are showing is that we all have an area of the brain called the mirror neurons. When you pick p a peanut, this area lights up. The interesting part is tha t if you see someone else lean over and pick up a peanut, the same are of the brain lights up. Scientists think that this is why we might wince when we see someone else stub their toe.
Theory of the Mind allows us to imagine what the other person’s reaction will be and our mirror neurons mimic that reaction. This whole process allows us to better understand the experience – something like empathy – which results in a better social connection between us and the other person.
So, you might be saying – this is great scientific information about the brain, but this is a business skills podcast – what does brain science have to do with business skills?
Well, there is a lot of scientific evidence that our brains work to ensure our social interactions with others. And, of course, a large percentage of our social interactions with others occurs at work. Your success in your career is going to be somewhat dependent on how well you can execute these social interactions. If you are a developer, your career success will be heavily dependent on your ability to code software. If you are a marketer, your success is heavily dependent on your ability to get leads in the door. But, if you are good at those career-specific skills, but not good at getting along with your coworkers or clients, then you ultimately won’t be as successful as you could be. We need to be able to execute our unique job-related skills within the bigger context of social interactions. Business is wholly dependent on social interactions.
So, understanding how our brain works in these social interactions is important. How we use this knowledge at work can help us build deeper relationships with our coworkers. It can help us influence others and understand why a coworker might behave the way they do.
And, anytime you can improve your interactions with others, you will be more successful in your career.
If you want to learn more about these topics, I recommend the book Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect by Matthew Lieberman.
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