Neuroscience and the Roots of Human Connections: The Social Synapse

Neuroscience and the Roots of Human Connections: The Social Synapse


we human beings enter the world full of
possibility who will we become how will we affect
the world how will the world affect us one thing is sure we will interact with
the world with other people the fetus begins to develop an auditory system at
seventeen to nineteen weeks an infant can make eye contact at one to two
months and we arrived with a special gift a brain designed for social
interactions communication and we are not alone other species are also social
they form groups they care for each other they work together and other
species also have cognitive skills they communicate the evolution of other species as well
as humans may have been driven by social interaction and the ability to solve
problems and create solutions but we Homo sapiens have a remarkable capacity
for communication and innovation some of our predecessors built fires and
gathered around they began to use tools that were made like this there’s
evidence of early use of symbols the growth of art shared knowledge to
communicate over the centuries we have interacted and learned from each other
communicating with language with art with technology creating evermore
complex societies is this capacity for culture the key to who we have become
what is it that has driven us forward and helped us survive when others like
Homo erectus or Homo habilis died out the skulls of our predecessors were
remarkably similar to ours so physiology cannot have been the evolutionary key as
we seek answers from the past neuroscience is probing the brain
looking at what mechanisms are at work that allow us to understand each other
to mirror each other’s feelings and behavior to communicate has that social
synapse actually driven human evolution as our brains became bigger and more
complex we may be only beginning to understand this interaction and how it
has shaped who we are so I I was just watching that video and I I was
wondering maybe a little show of hands when that guy yawned how many people had
this slight push of a yawn coming yeah well it’s almost everybody and you don’t
know that guy but he something he did trigger something in your brain you felt
something you had a response and it’s a small part of the kind of connection
that we’re going to be talking about tonight and so what we’re going to
examine is the question of whether this social capacity whether it’s in our
brains or in our culture is the thing that allowed us as a species to become
so dominant our first participant is a professor of behavioral and evolutionary
biology at the University of st. Andrews an elected fellow of the Royal Society a
fellow of the Society of biology and the author of Darwin’s unfinished symphony
how culture made the human mind please welcome Kevin Leyland our next guest is a professor and chair
of anthropology at the University of Notre Dame
his research delves into the how and why of being human his current research
includes creativity and community in human evolution multi-species
relationships and engaging race and racism he is the author of two popular
science books popular science books most recently the creative spark how
imagination made humans exceptional please welcome Augustin Fuentes next to
join us is a professor of psychology and the Canada Research Chair in cognition
evolution and behavior at the University of Lethbridge she ran a long-term
project on baboons in South Africa for 12 years and currently co-directs the
Samara vervet monkey project in South Africa she is the author of beyond the
brain how body and environment shape animal and human minds Louise Barrett next a professor of psychology and
director of the social cognitive and affective neuroscience lab at Columbia
University he helped to found the social and affective neuroscience society he is
the current president of the Society for effective science effective that’s
within a please welcome Kevin Ochsner and finally an associate professor of
anthropology at Emory and associate director of Emory Center for mind brain
and culture his research focuses on Paleolithic stone tool making and human
brain evolution and the connection between the two
let’s welcome Diedrich stouts I mentioned in the opening the word
culture in the video presented the term capacity for culture and I think that’s
a vocabulary word that we need to start out by defining or agreeing on a
definition by the way we have a double Kevin situation tonight the to Kevin’s
raise your hands so that everybody knows okay so when I asked Kevin you have to
guess which one I’m gonna go to but I’ll start with Kevin Leyland what do we mean
in the context in which we’re discussing it tonight of course what do we mean by
culture well I’m a biologist rather than anthropologist so I that as a liberty to
define culture however I want so when I use the term culture I’m I’m thinking
very broad brush terms about ability to acquire knowledge and skills from other
individuals to express that knowledge in our in our tools our technology our
engineering our behavior and critically for me to build on that reservoir of
shared knowledge iteratively it sort of fashioning ever more efficient and
diverse solutions to life’s challenges like a sharper blade or a more stable
canoe its culture is something that only humans can have no in my definition
other animals also acquire knowledge from from each other they also propagate
that information amongst amongst themselves they also invent novel
refinements that behavior but there are differences between the cultures that
other animals and humans have so we we can talk about
animal culture but we shouldn’t jump to the conclusion that means that they have
the same thing that we have does anybody have a dramatically
different or supplementary as an anthropologist one thing that’s really
important I agree with Kevin completely that many things many organisms have
culture but what’s fascinating about human culture in particular is that in
addition to this sort of acquired behavior and taught and learn and sort
of expanded behavior that can change sort of the way which organisms interact
with the world human culture is also built on institutions and rules and
beliefs it does more than just sort of how we
act it actually shapes the way in which we perceive physically physiologically
and socially the world and again difference from animals yeah yeah
there’s a difference in this sort of intensity and extensiveness of human
culture relative to many others Louise you were nodding yes very much I would
just add to that I think that another part of culture that builds on what I
guess she was saying is the way in which because we have all these cultural
artifacts and knowledge from others and the things we make that that helps
expand our minds beyond our physical brains that our minds are sort of leak
out into the world and so there are things out there that you should
encompass you should extend our cognitive system to include those so we
have much more extended lines I would say than most other animals and Kevin
how do you use the term culture in this conversation sure from the perspective
of psychology I think I certainly would agree with everything everyone has said
so far but it also emphasized that human culture is by no means unitary and
there’s incredible diversity across groups of individuals in habits customs
practices for communication of information for the nature of
relationships how we express what’s normative for expressing our emotions to
one another that can very certainly nationally but this kind of definition
allows us to describe cultures at the level of families the level of any kind
of social group that can have its own intrinsic culture and it can be going to
the Opera it can in in New York or other cities it might entail
Deitrick have a few how you define culture depends on who you’re talking to
and what questions you’re trying to address you know and so you can have a
very broad definition of culture that allows us to look at it across species
which is extremely useful but then you do wind up always having this thing
where you add another word like human culture you know so and what the one
thing that I think has been kind of in the background of some of the
anthropological comments here is a system of symbolic representation and
communication which brings together a lot of these ideas about establishing
norms and even kinship structures that go beyond the biological allows you to
have things like religions and art and so forth and so for some anthropologists
they want to call cultural the capital C has to have that component okay since we
have that that term is is out there now we can use it with some familiarity it’s
clear you’re gonna all use it in a slightly different way but more
importantly you’re using it in an overlapping way that I think makes sense
in this conversation tell us about how the work that you’ve been doing relates
to this topic we’re talking about this humans as a as a social as is a very
successful social animal so a standard approach for an evolutionary biologist
interested in a particular human trait would be to sort of take a comparative
perspective let’s see what other animals are doing and that gives us a baseline
which to understand what’s different or special against humans so the approach
that I take is is no different from that we’ll study animal behavior and we’re
particularly interested in the origins of culture and one of the insights
you’re coming across I study innovation and social learning
in animals so let’s take each of those in turn
so for longest time I thought the animals didn’t really invent very much
and that they were instinct driven creatures but as we studied animals and
and got a better understanding of their natural behavior we were a better place
to detect departures from those from the norm and it’s become very apparent that
the animal showed creativity all the time that many animals invent novel
behaviors if you want you can you can find
examples of this all over YouTube it’s it’s it’s very prevalent so one example
that I often refer my students to is these Japanese crows that have devised
the habit of using cars as nutcrackers they have these nuts which are too hard
a shell for them to to break so they just put the shells on the road cars run
them over then they go and they retrieve the nuts and there are even some who
become so sort of traffic conscious that they’ll do this in zebra crossing so
that they can do they can retrieve the then that’s very very safely so there
are all kinds of cute examples along these lines one of my favorites is one
of jane goodall’s chimpanzees called mike discoveries to empty kerosene cans
and that he could bang them together and make a very loud noise and that this
would intimidate his rivals and and so incorporated this into his dominance
display and shot up the the hierarchy and became alpha male in record time so
so many many marvelous examples of this that we see in nature but we can also
you know investigate innovation in a more systematic way in the laboratory by
presenting populations of animals with novel tasks that they have to solve and
then we look at the characteristics of the soul were or the circumstances that
that lead to those solutions arising so we’ve done a lot of work with birds
where we’ve investigated the spread of novel behaviors through through bird
populations so here’s an example you can see now these are some zebra finches and
a student mind Neal jabu Gert carry out this this task where she taught one of
these birds to flip over one of the lids and to grab the food which is a piece of
spinach and you can see all this mayhem is going on and we have to try and make
sense of this in some cases they’re learning from the from the demonstrating
individual we monitor the spread and this is another example so this is what
carry out in the field these these are bearded Capucines in
Brazil this is what carried out my for my student Rachel
Kendall so she’ll present this little puzzle box to the to the monkeys and
this is a task that can be solved in two ways you can see it’s gonna pull on the
green handle in a second that’s one way of solving the task and there it gets
its food there’s also a blue flap which you can lift and that’s another way of
solving it so we’ll bait some populations with with individuals that
they solve it one way and other populations that solve it the other way
and we’ll see whether those solutions propagate through the population in
other cases I also got a video of some work carry out by Lucy NAPLAN an Oxford
University on these great tips which against a really nice study carry out by
this researcher presented these birds in in the local woods with this little
foraging task get a mealworm and this is a map of their social network so each
one of those little white dots represents an individual in the
population and as the individuals light up red that shows that they have learned
that particular behavior and you can see it’s spreading through the population
and the lines connecting individual represent the amount of time they spend
together so you can see social learning in front it happening in front of your
eyes here the information flow follows the social network and the assumption is
that we have these faculties too but we have them better more it more developed
and I think there’s there’s plenty of evidence to support there but but better
in a particular sense what’s that which is that that there is
that ratcheting up of complexity that we see in in human societies so that we can
produce a solution through a task and then refine it and then improve it and
then get an even better solution whereas what we see in other animals is we see
novel behavior spreads of a population and then we’ll see a different novel
behaviour spread but we rarely see evidence that they’re building on their
previous solutions team something that I find a little hard to follow is that as
is the I think the argument being made here that over time these
skills get passed on but that culture is inherited in an almost evolutionary
sense but a bird a bird learning how to to do is skill that bird dies and I
would say well doesn’t its knowledge of that skill die with it and it’s not
passed on what so what’s his argument about culture being inherited so let’s
even take that bird example and then given a human example so what you’re
really seeing that trait that skill as we just saw is in the culture is in the
social group it’s there as we said earlier in part of the extended group
well if the entire group dies and you’re a great tit that behavior is dead for
that population right if every practitioner but that capacity is part
of the social interaction in the landscape in humans we take that as as
Kevin just said we ratcheted up another level for example we don’t just sort of
learn to acquire a behavior I know how to screw the lid off of a bottle right
but then we imbue that behavior with all sorts of symbolic meaning of importance
so not only do I unscrew the the bottle but I if it’s a particular bottle I pour
it into a glass and I share it and we raise it we drink it have a really good
time those kinds of interactions the meaning the sharing the acquiring not
just through learning but through social interactions and interfaces of the
meaning of the behaviors is actually something characteristically human but
this kind of sharing of information not in an evolutionary sense such that it
impacts the body and the organisms is common for many many many societies of
animals in addition to humans the idea that evolution is just about
mating and dying that’s very antiquated and actually a
misrepresentation it’s not what Darwin said and it’s not what we understand as
evolutionary biology can I repeat back what I think I’ve heard you say is that
the culture that create organisms create animals create are huge human animals
create becomes what part of that environment that then shapes the genetic
reaction to the environment and the behavior of the feedback reaction the
brain the way in which we perceive and feel the world is shaped by the ways in
which we push into the world and it pushes back to us so
that relationship that mutual mutability between organisms and their environment
is actually how evolutionary processes move I want to go to an experimental
moment can you bring out your your your box so tell us what this is about well
as we’ve discussed one of the distinctive things about human cultures
is capacity to ratchet up in complexity over time and we needed a experimental
way to mimic that that we could present to to animals so this is a simulated
cumulative culture puzzle box it can be solved at three different levels to
yield ever more desirable rewards so the simplest level is you slide the door to
one side and this reveals a chute well you get a low grade reward so if you’re
a chimpanzee or a capuchin monkey you might get a piece of carrot and then you
can build on that you can refine that if you like by pressing down this this
button here and you can slide it further and that will give you a higher grade
reward it might be a piece of apple and then there’s this knob at the end which
if you turn you can slide the door further still and that would give the
highest grade reward which would be a great so these are increasingly
desirable to her to a non-human primate there are two sides to this so
potentially two individuals can interact with it at the same time so we presented
this this experimental apparatus to small groups of nursery school children
aged 4 to 5 to of capuchin monkeys and groups of chimpanzees and the idea was
to see what were they capable of solving this were they capable this kind of
simulated cumulative culture and if not to try and work out why not what would
the we thought it’s quite likely the children would be able to solve this so
what would the children be doing differently and sure enough as we
anticipated the children solve this task very easily they helped each other they
we had multiple children in multiple groups solving the task at the highest
level so the solutions spread through their groups whereas you might get the
odd chimpanzee or capuchin monkey that solved the task at a higher level but
those solutions never spread so we didn’t see evidence for that community
of cultural learning so we then asked able to say what was it that the
children were doing different we found they were teaching each other
they were pointing each other and saying press this here you turn this here that
teaching was largely through verbal instruction and the communication that
the children engaged in enhance the performance of the recipient whereas the
other two species engaged in plenty of communication we didn’t do anything for
the recipients performance they the turn was sit down and they never take each
other’s actions they produce matching manipulations of the box
whereas very little matching in the other two species kind of and the
children help each other there were many many acts of sort of spontaneous
pro-sociality whether it even they’d even give their retrieved rewards to
other children which I think shows that they they understood that the other
children shared their intentions and goals it’s all the way from Scotland I
did and it’s extremely heavy yeah I don’t want to think what United Airlines
made of it but what it demonstrates is that these high fidelity information
transmission mechanisms are critical to this capacity and the Scottish children
are really smart augustin as the anthropologists on the
panel you have written that human creativity is the thing that allows us
to look at what is and talk about what it could be and then in the next
sentence you wrote and we’re hardwired for this what are you saying there well
what I really think given years of looking at humans and other primates
doing this broad what we think of in a biological approach comparing what
humans do can do and what other organisms doing can do and not asking
how are humans better but asking what does it look like what are the
commonalities and the differences and let me give you an example that I think
highlights where I think this creativity comes in I was watching a group of
monkeys in Bali and in this group there was just one female who never had
offspring and to sort of be part of this group you have to have offspring right
and so whenever we would be sitting she’d always be separate from the group
and so I’d be sitting there taking some data and I’d look watch around and she’d
be about 10 meters from me writing I’d look over she’d be about 5 meters from
me sort of look around to be about 2 meters from me and
and I’d feel this sort of warmth on my thigh she would just sit there and sort
of lean against me like this she was she needed social interaction as a prime it
as a social organism and she found a very socially creative way to do it so
that’s something that we share in common to other primates but we on the other
hand when we need these interactions we do other things we build houses we build
fences we see other people as our kin and to find other people as something
completely different and we do so unbelievably creatively we create
symbols and meaning all of this stuff we imagine worlds and impose those on the
material in front of us and I’m very interested in how that happens we have
that capacity we talk about the social brain this capacity to imagine the world
and to make those imaginings concrete reality is very impressive and how do we
do it that’s a very good question I think a lot of the ways we can do it in
much of what we’ll be talking about is this incredible capacity for
collaboration and cooperation for getting together this notion of sharing
information and then finding ways to work that information together as a
group to develop new things this is what makes humans amazing and what makes us
do incredibly good things and gives us the capacity to horrendously bad things
your your work has had this very specific relationship to culture and in
terms of communication talk about that a little bit so I think what’s really
important here is understanding not just linguistic communication but meaning
dense meaning that humans have so for example we don’t just sort of show
information or do a behavior we also imbue that with symbolic meaning
so later we’ll talk a little bit about some of the early art that’s out there
these niches okay so there are 80,000 120,000 years ago if you look here these
are pieces of ochre a little bit of red clay like material that 80,000 years ago
in South Africa someone or a group of people took and made these lines in and
made the lines and this little piece of okra is about this big and they had even
smaller ones that that that they carved little lines into and we find them in
these places where they’re making very complicated tools very fascinating
functional material items but then why are they doing this what’s going on here
why little hash marks in Red Rocks it’s not just that these marks were
made eighty thousand one hundred twenty thousand two hundred thousand years ago
it’s that they had meaning to the people making them and they used this as a way
to communicate something about themselves or something about the others
without being there without a time machine we don’t know what that meaning
was here we see some other examples as well but we know that they were taking
the material world imagining imbuing it with some meaning
and then sharing that with one another and that’s a little bit different than a
group of tits showing how to get some food right it’s actually changing the
way in which we perceived this is a wonderful example this is a piece of
okra that’s this big it’s very hard to even see but they spent hours probably
gauging these really little straight lines there’s three or four straight
lines another line down it I have no idea why they did that but they did it
and they knew why they did it did they’re doing that grow our brains our
brains are the same size now as they were that maybe even Mars are a little
smaller in some cases but what’s amazing is it probably grew the way in which our
brains are changed the way in which our brains perceive the world and perceived
one another by imposing meaning on to the world we started the shift the way
our brains interpret perceive and engage the world and movies that’s the sense in
which we mean culture moving on that this this this imbuing of meaning in
this communication in this connectedness is that I think what happens with human
children you’re born into a world that’s full of meaning already you know if you
just think about how much you can pick up just from everyday experience so we
live in houses and this is a room you eat in and this is a room you sleep in
right and you don’t have to be taught that it’s just you participate in your
culture you’re learning all the time you’re picking up these kinds of things
because most of its out there there’s a lot of material culture out there which
is allowing you to learn how to participate and take part in your
culture so I mean if you look at I mean Halloween in in North America is a very
big thing and you just see all these little kids dressed up as Princess Leia
or you know whoever and and some of them are too tiny to even know why they’re
doing it or who they are you know it’s for their parents and they’re very proud
but the child is participating in her culture and over time that public
display will become internalized or understand why is she’s participating
what the meaning the deep deeper meaning of Princess Leia is and it’s so
important to her dad that she dresses up like that
and I think that’s that’s the kind of thing that the Augustine’s getting at
that it’s through this you participate in your culture and through that
participation you can to absorb your culture into you and not just the
culture you’re born in but your entire cultural history yeah and I mean it’s
what this what Kevin would call niche construction which is the idea that we
engineer our own environments and those things allow us and that’s to feedback
and as you were saying like you know that it changes the way natural
selection acts on genes so we kind of select for our own genetic you know
evolution Louise how does your work shed light again on how we do it well I mean
the the again I work on on primates and humans and when you spend all day long
out with monkeys what what you notice is that they don’t have days of the week
they don’t have time of day you suddenly realize that there’s a different way of
being and that work that’s what really got me interested in is like when you
have a non linguistic animal these are my vervet monkeys here that we that we
study when you’re a non linguistic animal if you don’t see something happen
it might as well never have happened you you know you have no means of
transmitting that information so it’s interesting to like look at a non human
society and non linguistic society and look at how their sociality functions
and then come back into the human world and then you’ll all the things that that
Augustine was saying are thrown into this very very sharp relief that we have
things like marriage and money and they are only things that exist because we
all agree they do you know these pieces of paper in themselves don’t have any
meaning and so were you primarily drawn to this study because you were primarily
interested in learning about humans or were you primarily interested in
learning about the primates I began as an ecologist and I was a plant ecologist
there wasn’t even an ammonite I got I did a course in my third year University
on primate behavior and I was that just who just like something clicked and I
was really fascinated by and I also was very interested to go to Africa I’d
always wanted to go to Africa so in a kind of series of accidents I
got the chance to go and study monkeys in Uganda and for my PhD but I kind of
do accidentally and then so I I was a real and I was an animal behaviorist I
was interesting animals for their own sake and I still am but as a consequence
of going out every day and living a company and living a completely
different kind of life having an seeing a completely different way of being it
kind of when you come back into the human world do you realize how like
deeply weird it is like humans are weird and that’s
what that’s what really got me interested in finding out more about why
humans are weird but humans are weird but is that our secret strength power
yeah I think I think that deep weirdness is we don’t see it we don’t see it yeah
because we swim in the water it’s big Kevin tell us about how your work
relates to the topic we’re talking about tonight sure so I work in an area that’s
the intersection some social psychology and neuroscience known as social
neuroscience and the big interest of this field is in trying to understand
how the brain that we have today gives rise to all the complexities of culture
social interaction that we take for granted moment to moment and that formed
the basis of all of our social relationships do you mean them in very
small ways the little one-to-one react interaction is yes for sure
so the primary tool we use for doing this is functional brain imaging so if
any of you’ve ever had an MRI we use that basic kind of tool where you have
to try to figure out a way to study social interaction with people that are
lying on a flat bed not moving on their back this is a little bit difficult but
luckily we had this incredible capacity for creativity and imagination and so
you can show movies and ask people to simulate social interactions or actually
have them play interactive games through a computer that captured many isn’t
quite in the MRI machine in there watching movies and absolutely sure you
may not want them to move too much because it’s a little bit like one of
those old-time cameras where you leave the shutter open and if people were to
move it would just be blurred yeah that’s kind of like what fMRI is right
now we’re taking pictures of we’re sort of mapping the activity of the brain
every second or two seconds and if you move too much it gets
a blurry picture and and to what degree are you trying to map track trace social
interactions I think my lab does not and many other labs try to do that around
the world the different complex brain systems that give rise to the kinds of
behaviors that you’re seeing Illustrated on the monitor right now where could be
something as simple as two people passing by greeting each other on the
street it turns out it’s a whole symphony of brain systems like look
different you can imagine each part of your brain is part of a sort of like
there’s the woodwind area the brass area and they’re each playing different kinds
of notes that are effective in the emotional sense or social and the way in
which they all combine is the kind of music of our behavior and the way we
interact with one another I mean I happen to know from having worked on the
topic of autism for a long time that even an operation for a child who has
profound impairment from art for autism being taught how to get into an elevator
and ride it it’s very very complicated including just the fact that when you
walk into the elevator you turn around and face the door and that you separate
that you form you separate an equal amount of space from everybody else in
the elevator because they’re all doing the same thing and nobody ever teaches
us to do that we just sort of have figured it out through some sort of
subtle to me invisible social signaling we do try to study that
kind of complex social interaction so how we might recognize each other’s
facial expressions or how I might read subtle changes in your body language
your tone of voice the way you look at me if I’m not standing quite the right
way in the elevator like if I stand too close to you yeah or if I’m a close
talker the kind of hmm the way in which you move subtly backward as I inch
closer to continue being a close talker we do try to study those kinds of things
and what brain systems are important for that sense of I need to avoid this guy
in the future because I don’t want his breath in my face all the time
it’s very interesting you mentioned autism because one of the arguments is
that children and people with autism they lack her sort of theory of mind
they lack an understanding of how to take another person’s
perspective and the same is true of monkeys they don’t have much in the way
of their they can’t you know but they don’t behave like autistic individuals
they don’t play about people with autism they behave they’re very socially adept
they’re very good at picking up cues from others all the things you were
talking about in terms of the monkey quill have an elevator behavior so all
these kinds of facial signals and so what I mean is that how much of those we
use in our everyday life and how they kind of oil the wheels of these bigger
forms of cooperation that we engage in so how do you build up to human society
from from what you have in in monkey society are you reaching any preliminary
conclusions or some guesses hunches that you’re working towards um I think these
kind of these sort of emotional empathic connections we have a very important I
think we use them far more than we than we think we do I mean there’s there’s
these are very old findings from from you know ethology but you know there’s
this kind of thing when you see people at a distance and you’re walking down a
corridor and you just kind of you know your knowledge and you just raise your
eyebrows you go hi and then if you notice like you you don’t really you
can’t even look at each other again – you’re much closer right you you
actually the way if you want to freak someone out in any way you want as you
screech them and you acknowledge them with your eyebrow flash then just keep
looking at them intently as you walk through and closer and closer it will
they will feel very uncomfortable and and the other things like if you want an
empty seat next to you on a train or a bus you know every once I put my bag on
there put my coat on there you know that’ll keep everyone away as though
some people aren’t going to say could you move that or is anyone sitting there
the way to sit on your own in any social situation like that is to keep the seat
entirely empty and then as soon as someone gets on catch their eye and Pat
the seat next to you you’ll that that is the key that’s the one thing I ever
learned from psychologists usually yeah and so those are the sorts of things
that you see in monkeys right so how do we you know we use those all the time
how do they help us do these other things are these the things that that
the oil the wheels and help these more complex forms of cooperation run
smoothly Deitrick you you’re really coming from
in a sense left field with the the thing that you are so good at
which is making stone tools the way that the way that the ancients did have you
get into the stone tool making business well I mean I think I think I’ve always
been interested in just how the mind works the nature of human thought you
know and I had no idea what you needed to do to study that when I went to
college and maybe philosophy or something and I had a professor who was
a good one and he told me oh you should take some anthropology classes and I
took an archaeology class and one of the lectures was introducing the topic of
stone tools and they say well you know here we have a stone tool that was
shaped by somebody you know 200 thousand years ago and you can see each little
piece that’s been removed records a specific action and a choice that this
individual made 200 thousand years ago we can have a window on their mind and
their decision making process and what they were thinking and I said well you
know we need to study this if we actually want it obviously our modern
mind came to revolutionary processes from the past but how are we going to
get evidence of that and and it seems to me that this was a somewhat
underutilized for that kind of question source of information and so I say well
well what can we learn from the archaeological record and fortunately at
that point I didn’t know how difficult it was to learn anything from little
bits of broken rod but if you study stone tools as an archaeologist one
thing that many of us believe you should do is know something about how to make
them you know so many people do acquire at least a little bit of skill and some
take it to very high levels I for it I’ve always remained with very primitive
stone tools yeah so but if you want to study later periods of prehistory you
actually have to have a stand of time to learn the things that they did which
were very sophisticated so I stay with you know kind of Homo erectus level
stuff myself the really interesting thing about your work is what you think
it tells you about what’s going on in the brain while the work is being done
so let’s let’s have you show a little bit first how it works and then talk
about what you think is going on in the brain and why that matters to this
conversation okay sure yeah well I happen to have brought a hundred pounds
of rock with me yeah in case you are going to ask social
part of the show so what I can show you is something I’ve been working on a bit
which is how to make a later issue lien hand axe so this is the kind of tool
that you might find from about 500,000 years ago Homo heidelbergensis it’s made
to be used in your hands so it’s got a bit of weight behind it but it has a
nice sharp cutting edge on it and it’s characteristically a symmetrical and
quite thin in cross-section which gives you a lot of cutting edge for the amount
of weight that you have to carry around so you in order to get this you start
with a piece of Flint like this one and what you’ll maybe immediately notice is
it doesn’t have any edges on it and it’s also really thick and heavy and so the
trick is I’m going to have to first impose an edge around it so that I have
the right angles to shoot flakes that this is broken pieces of rock we call
them flakes that go more than halfway across the surface so it can actually
reduce the thickness of this piece and so to start off I’ll choose an
appropriate hammer stone a fairly large one to do what we call opening the core
and I’m just trying to establish flint knapping is a lot about it will make a
lot about edges right alright so I’m going to try to establish an acute angle
that I can use alright and so I’ve by taking off a piece now I’ve got an acute
angle I can flip it over and go in the other direction and start shooting
flakes can you go you hope just hold it up for a second for the camera to catch
it so that and turn it around a little bit just so people can see what progress
you’ve made and just hold there for a second alright so I just removed a
couple flakes there and you see that where this is 90 degree angles and flat
now we have acute angles you can start to work with is the idea anyway and so I
would move through the piece maybe breaking off too much there
right and do this back and forth until it starts doing you can already see it
starting to assume a little bit more of the kind of shape you might want right
what so sorry there you can see so anyway I would do that for a while and
then suddenly it would look like this and so you can see in this this piece is
that it has the angles on the edge all the way around it and what I want to do
is regularize that and then start thinning it so I actually start doing
some very more meticulous types of modifications of the edge to establish
just the right kind of geometric relationships to remove the flicks that
I want to have come off and then I’ll also use a different kind of a hammer no
longer the big you know hard rock but something this is a moose antler
actually and this initiates a different kind of fracture by causing tension and
literally tearing flakes off if it works you can see the flakes that are coming
off now are thinner sorry trying to get it on camera here and and they are
starting to invade into the piece so let me see if I can get off one good
thinning flake as a demonstration this is something we call platform
preparation and if you want to think about it it means that you have to sort
of stop what you’re doing and do something else for a while
it seems in a way to be taking you away from your goal so you kind of have a
little sub operation that you do in the midst of something else guys so if you
put it back on you can see that these flakes are now thinner and they’re
moving into the center or taking off pieces towards the middle and starting
to thin it down a little bit do you enjoy doing this yes it’s a lot of fun
so let’s get to what it means yeah so you had students doing this and
you have you were doing brain imaging yeah now again these you were not able
to put them inside an MRI well sure you can do the show the videos right so a
lot of your work relies on this idea as well that we use some of the same
systems to understand observed actions that we do to actually execute them this
is a foundation of some forms of social cognition all right so we can see how
what the brain systems that people use to understand what they’re seeing when
they’re in the MRI but we can also use a different technique which is positron
emission tomography which use was like cutting-edge in the early 90s or
something if you want to use it much anymore but that involves a radiological
tracer that’s injected and it is taken up in the brain like glucose over a
great student we get injected in the foot yeah and it hurt yeah yeah so the
reason yeah the foot was apparently very difficult and the reason why we did that
was so that wouldn’t mess with their arms while they were doing the
flintknapping and so you’ve got a guy with like a tube
in his foot and he’s betting in a rock and you’re tracing his brain okay yeah
well they yeah you know they put a port in his foot and I took it off so it
wasn’t it wasn’t that that bad but yeah so you could actually do it and we got
images that what did you learn well what the the the goal was to sort of map out
the basic systems that are involved but also then to compare different
technologies because we have an evolutionary sequence in the archeology
of what we think are more and less complicated types of stone tools and we
wanted to see as these tools became more sophisticated where exactly is the brain
sort of feeling the pinch of these increased demands you know and so we
would compare them and the results indicated in some cognitive control type
areas which is this sort of whereas the early Stone tool-making was very
demanding of perceptual motor coordination you know think like sport
or crafts or something like that the making the hand axe required more what
we call top-down and control kind of activity and so that
was a contrast that we made interestingly enough some of these
cognitive control regions are relevant to some processes that are also relevant
for human language so there’s an argument to be made that early stone
tool-making could have helped to lay the foundations for what later evolved into
human language was doing the work a social activity was somebody being
taught by somebody else because I mean there’s a lot of people in the room here
but you could have definitely done that by yourself up here on this stage
although which would have been strange but but was it a social activity in
itself yeah well Kevin participated in an
experiment along these lines but it’s it’s hard to know for sure exactly how
things were learned in the past all right so I did I was lucky enough to do
some ethnography in 1999 in New Guinea with some modern stone and tool makers
there I know and I showed up and I wanted to record their behavior and one
of the first things a scientist like okay I want you to be isolated over here
so I can study you and they say no way we don’t do it we always do this
together this is something we do as a community and it has meaning for us it
is part of my identity and you know you’re coming at it the wrong way
because I’m sort of imposing this idea that oh technology is this purely
non-social functional thing that we do over there you know and that’s not how
they saw it I suspect that’s more accurate to how things were in
prehistory than sort of our modernist ideas about the difference between
society and technology but it’s hard to know exactly what teaching was required
so I can say that by the time they’re doing something like this they’re doing
a technique that is quite difficult for us to communicate to others without some
intentional teaching however it is possible for you to discover this
yourself you know in fact of course as archaeologists that’s what we spend a
lot of years doing is rediscovering these techniques so it’s possible but it
seems improbable after a certain point how far you going as a careful scientist
in terms of your assertion that this that this tool making impact on the
development of the brains of the people who did it got
talking also I’m going far enough to say that I would really like to do more
research and we are but I think you know it’s a it’s important to appreciate that
this is not just the functional imaging which people are maybe more familiar
with but also structural imaging so that we can look at the changes that
physically happen for instance to white matter tracks and in the brain as you’re
trained in these techniques and it is the same regions that become
functionally active so it’s not only that you’re doing it and thinking it but
practicing it changes your brain and that leads to this argument about how
cultural inheritance can feed back with biology to create evolutionary change
yeah I mean I was gonna bring that question back to to Kevin and where
would you go with that Todd so we’ve been interested in that in that feedback
loop and and one thing that led us to starting the wise lines is if you look
at humans we see we’re very creative we see the we’re very culturally reliant we
see we also have large brains and you know is that just coincidence or did one
cause the other is that that feedback going on one way we could address that
would would be to look at patterns of innovation and social learning in other
animals and see whether they Co vary with brain size so we looked across
primates we compiled data banks of rates of innovation for different species of
primates rates of social learning for different species of primates and then
plotted those against each other and we found sure enough yes
big brain species of primates are more innovative innovative they they invent
more new behavior they copy each other more than do small brain two species of
primates and this led us to endorse the argument that this was no coincidence
that that natural selection might be favoring innovative nursing might be
favoring more efficient more accurate forms of copying and this would drive a
feedback loop that would would favor those structures or capabilities in the
brain the perceptual systems computational
capabilities the ability to take in the perceptual inputs of others and and
transform them into them that matching motor outputs so these kind of
capabilities would be favored in a feedback loop that would only
incidentally be manifested in bigger brains but with wood feedback to further
enhance the accuracy and efficiency of copy and we inferred that if that were
the case then since a lot of the novel innovations that we’re seeing in our
primates that socially transmitted behaviors that we’re seeing are foraging
behaviors they often involve tools they often involve animals extracting foods
from substrates in complex ways that we should see rates of social learning and
innovation correlated across primates with rates of tool use rates of
extractive foraging breadth of their diets and other measures of the
complexity of their behavior even longer lives and again when we looked at this
we compiled databases for all of these things we look to see do these things
all go together we found indeed they did and and I mean so much so you could
actually you can actually do a factor analysis which allows us to kind of
partition the variance and all of these different measures and the bulk of the
variance is aligned along a single dimension which you can think of as as
intelligence and you know you plot that against brain size you’ve got a positive
relationship and and you can also plot that you can you can put that into a
family tree for non-human primates and you see evidence for convergent
evolution that’s repeated evolution for higher intelligence in in four distinct
primate groups the Capucines the macaque the baboons and the great apes which are
precisely those species which are renowned for their social learning and
innovation so this really fits the argument that social and innovation is
driving brain evolution and the evolution of complex behavior I want to
invite Louise to add something you were talking about before we came on that you
don’t quite agree with the idea that the brain is should that what we referred to
as the brain is solely the organ inside our skull well the mind the mind
is not the brain is inside your skull okay if you don’t you don’t want that
leaking so so well I mean one of the reasons I got interested in some very
good lines tonight one of the reasons I got interested in in the brain itself is
because there are many more things with very small brains or no brain at all on
this planet than things is very big brains and so it’s like how come big
brains are quite rare and how come there are so many successful organisms who do
show quite flexible behavior with very tiny brain so that’s what that’s where I
got interested and then once you do that you realize well brains are part of a
larger system they’re embedded in a body which is embedded in an environment and
so all of those things together constitute the cognitive system or they
constitute the mind so so everything you have to take all of those things into
account so I find it I always find it very
interesting when neuroscientists thought ago the brain does this and the brain
does that so it’s as though it’s not part of the person as that you know and
it’s always like your brain that I literally went to a talk once it’s very
famous neuroscience Christopher and he said your brain knows more about this
than you do and it’s like reading you’re like hang on
do you know me like hang on but I am my brain you just said I was my brain and
now it doesn’t know it knows more than I so I find those kinds of things get you
know you get very into this kind of slightly do a list view of things and
it’s just a way of bringing the brain and the body and the world back together
again so that we understand because because I mean what what what Duke is
doing there is action it’s like doing stuff to the world it’s like breaking
thing you know that’s what you see when you watch baboons when you watch
capuchin monkeys they’re trying to break the world see they’re very destructive
in various many ways and I but I think that’s how they learn so we had a we had
a we bought a quad for the quad bike for our project and we were so proud of him
we bought a net for her and her gloves and goggles and all these things and
then we left it parked out of the way we thought nobody
and then we came back and the baboons had found it and the goggles were gone
and the netting with this thing was stripped right there
we’ve been all over it and taken a you know just to kind of understand the what
just to see how they could understand the world they they kind of try and pull
it upon break-in I think that’s what we do too and I think that’s the origins of
our intelligence the amazing thing that part of that is that shared primate
reality but Dietrich if you can hold up the large sort of rock the larger one
and the final sort of hand acts so what we do as humans this back to our
beginning of our conversation and culture what we do as humans we might
break part of the world but we imagined inside that rock this other tool this
other way of doing something so part of this culture that yes you can put it
down this this part of the culture that we’re talking about we talk about human
culture many things have culture but our capacity to look at that whole rock and
to have a social context of history a knowledge a shared ideology that allows
us to see inside that rock is this other tool this other thing that is
particularly humans and it’s particularly interesting it is one more
thing I want to ask you is you know like with sculpt to say oh the statue is just
in there I just had to like no is that what happens with is there when you get
a core does the core somehow also dictate how you approach the thing in
the final project no not really yeah only in the broadest terms you like
well this is gonna be a problem but but you actually have a bunch of rules of
thumb in the production process you go through and sort of like little targets
along the way it’s like well I needed to you know get the edges all like this and
then I look at it again and see where I am and sort of sort of reassess like
that and but I think that you know we’re sort of dancing around these these
issues of meaning and representation and symbolism and you know we on the one
hand we’re having this discussion about how we can talk about culture and
learning and other animals but then we want to make these dichotomous things
between what but you know when they do these foraging behaviors that they learn
it’s not meaningful in the same way as human art is or anything I’m just
interested just I don’t have answers but to probe that in the archaeological
record you know and is it really different you know these artistic
objects that you showed August in a very you know
vaca t’v to us because we don’t know why they did it we call it non-functional
but of course they had a function it was a perhaps a social communicative
function and is that really different neroli in terms of evolved neural
substrates from the functions just because one of them supports harvesting
calories and the other supports your interactions these are the questions
that we need to ask to understand how these things you fall is there a social
brain apart from general intelligence in your opinions Kevin so I think at some
level the entire brain is social because it’s almost banal to say that we’re
using our capacity for sight audition and so on at every moment but at the
same time there are particular brain systems that are really critical for
knowing whether you’re someone that’s a friend or a foe I should approach or I
should avoid for reading subtle nonverbal cues for being able to subtly
mimic and mirror your behavior you were referencing that earlier and then for
going beyond just the simple facial expression that you’ve got so a smile
may seem like the most straightforward an obvious thing for us to interpret but
it really depends on the context in which you see someone else smiling so if
you’re on a used-car lot and the used-car salesman comes up with a big
smile on their face and holds out their hand he’s probably not wanting to be
your friend he’s probably wanting to manipulate the
impression that you form of him and trying to sell you something and we’re
really good at drawing that inference at a high level and that’s a really
abstract kind of symbolic inference where we have language for personality
and feeling States like somebody’s gregarious or manipulative or deceptive
and so on and that symbolic terminology is really useful for us so if you
imagine the example that Louise just gave about it’s also thinking you don’t
live in New York because lots of these behaviors you see at some point in New
York you know like walking down the street
and having somebody just stare at you as you walk by or having people check you
out mm-hmm so that’s what you’re wearing today you get that yes and in New York
you learn to just accept and allow that kind of behavior and all it’s like
that’s normative here it’s okay whatever people are doing you
could run naked through Times Square and people go okay so that’s happening today
all right I gotta get to work so but trying to infer the intentions
like why was somebody doing that why is this person padding the seat next to me
that requires an unbelievable set of social skills there’s a kind of social
calculus that goes into it so while culture may prescribe all kinds
of norms for behavior that we in part learn implicitly by observing the
behaviors of others and having them shape and reinforce our behavior by
telling us no no no you can’t do that right now as a child you need to do this
other thing as adults we try to reuse the infirmities we implicitly use the
social norms to try to decide whether or not the behavior another person’s
engaging in is something about them or something about the social norm so if
I’m just sitting there quietly on the subway it doesn’t tell me that much
about that person but if they’re padding the seat and smiling at everybody as
they walk by it’s probably something unusual about that person because
they’re engaging in a socially non normative behavior and our capacity for
intelligence that isn’t social is itself something difficult to define is it raw
processing speed the ability the whole should we be making a distinction
between calculating intelligence and the intelligent being intelligent enough to
know that the walk person walking towards you as a threat are those two
different kinds of intelligence or do we even know that well there are certainly
some people who think they’re qualitatively different
I think we’re bringing to bear all of these different skills all the time and
social interaction so if I’m in a complex business negotiation with you
and I’m trying to infer your intention I’m probably using my capacity to hold
information in what’s called working memory which is often part of
intelligence tests that are not supposed to be not social
but I’m using the capacity to try to remember all the things that you’ve done
in the context of this interaction to try to bring to mind what I know about
your personality what I know about your history what are your goals likely to be
with respect to me are you trying to deceive me right now are you as genuine
as you appear to be and so on all of that requires a complex set of skills
some of which are social reading the nonverbal cues and so on but some of
which are probably not necessarily social that we’d use to remember phone
numbers or solve math problems at the same time
and loosely speaking there are brain networks that are roughly more involved
in one of those behaviors than another but as soon as you start poking around
you’ll find that virtually every brain system is engaged in multiple different
kinds of behaviors Augustine you were noting a lot during that yeah I think
it’s really important in this is to we try so hard to say well this kind of
intelligence like this is for math and this is for finding a sexual partner and
this is for finding a best friend that’s really problematic because it is that
combination of everything that is so powerful there’s this idea of symbol and
connection in the sociality right the whole idea that for us sometimes patting
the the chair next to us as an example might freak someone out but to someone
else who might say wow hey I want to go sit next to her so I’m gonna move over
here you know talk at that and so our capacity to navigate these landscapes
these unbelievably complex Nets we do this every day we stand in lines right
we don’t get hit by cars on average here in New York but sometimes but we
negotiate all these things deploying all of these capacities simultaneously and
so it’s really interesting from a lot of the work that everyone here is doing is
the amazing capacity we have to be doing multiple things simultaneously but that
they all center around the social parallel with what you’re just talking
about not separating not drawing these lines between theoretical kinds of
intelligence is the fact that the five of you represent almost completely
supposedly non-overlapping academic disciplines we’ve got a biologist kind
of anthropologist we’ve got a couple of psychologists and I’m wondering and the
paleontologists are are we these divisions do they make sense in your
notes now which what should go into disciplinarian
oh yeah I think the the capacity yeah that I mean knowledge the world is not
divided up into like anther departments in biology and political science the
world is out there we for some reason think the world works that way that’s
why a lot of students get bored in college if we’re so smart and so social
why do we have war because we’re so smart and so social one of the
incredible things we’ve been talking about all this collaboration all this
working together thinking about affect interpreting other’s behavior creating
symbol imbuing meaning into things one of the amazing things that humans
can do is cooperate kevin’s example just saw us that right down to the core
humans cooperate incredibly well but in our evolutionary history especially the
last couple hundred thousand years especially the last ten thousand years
we see increasing sort of patterns of inequality between groups increasing
ability to hold on to resources where other groups don’t have resources we’ve
set a stage where conflict pays off in ways that didn’t use to and we have this
incredible capacity for cooperation and to make symbol so if you think about all
this our ability to be peaceful to work together to collaborate also makes us
incredibly good at something horrible war the ability to get together to care
for one another to cooperate with the intention of getting something over
there our ability to think symbolically to dehumanize to call that other group
something less than human and to work together to take what that other group
has is all from the same capacity but the landscape of human evolution has
changed and we see this translated into kind of ferociousness a kind of
potential for incredible cruelty but that downside is also the upside right
there’s I think in case even right today where there’s a lot of problems in in
many societies and ours in particular with not understanding thinking about
what science can contribute what understanding the world what testable
reliable methodological assessment of the world around us tells us and then
using that information we have that capacity and there are a lot of us a few
people might not do that but there are more of us who
want to do that and who have the power to cooperate to work together to make
change then there are who don’t want to do that and I think that’s potentially
optimistic anybody else optimistic based on your work yeah just generally I’m
optimistic but I think I one of the things I think that’s interesting is we
now have named this new epoch you know the Anthropocene we’ve come up with this
name because we’re the largest geological force on it so now we’re in
this Anthropocene epoch which we govern things like the climate which has never
happened before in the history of Earth and I think part of why that makes me
optimistic is what I think part of the problem is often with things like trying
to get to grips and things like climate changes where you often see ourselves as
standing apart from nature that we either it’s there you know it’s wild and
we have to tame it or we have to control it or you know this or it’s something
delicate that we have to preserve and but we are part of nature we’re in the
world and I think if we had greater understanding of that maybe that would
help us realize that we have to protect all of it to protect ourselves it’s in
our own interest to do it and maybe something like the Anthropocene
generates more of a an understanding of that that we are not we don’t stand up
outside of nature and and culture is our nature do you know what I mean cultures
not let me like ever take one so as we wrap up yeah I had two thoughts so one
is it might help to remember that capacities for empathy and compassion
aren’t gendered if there’s an interesting lesson from the history of
neuroscience research where for a long time in non-human models of in
biomedical research only males were studied or primarily males were studied
because the estrus cycle the menstrual cycle complicated things too much and so
the idea that you may have learned an introductory psychology class that we
have the fight-or-flight response when stressed turns out to be guys and that
there’s a psychologist named Shelly Taylor who wrote a great book called the
taming instinct which is all about how when you look at the response to stress
and threat in females it’s more and to Mike in and try to befriend the
person who wants to have a conflict with me and I think that might be an
interesting lesson for modern times you’ve been great thank you so much
thank you everybody else bye-bye

21 thoughts on “Neuroscience and the Roots of Human Connections: The Social Synapse

  1. Why is the exposed perception of Neuro Cognition limited to the "brain" ?
    …..it's SO Much More Beyond that.

  2. It's good they explicitly focus on humans although much is extensible to the animal.

    If bacteria can be trained they must have goals. If they have goals they can be frustrated. And must have some form of mind.

  3. This did not address the title in the way I hoped it would …it was interesting (to an extent) … Thank You (all involved for this) … I did start skipping some after about 40 minutes into it …because I was hoping for more direct neurological links to connection …which I never really found. However, I absolutely loved that the Neuro. Psych. was given opportunity to speak at the end and how he pointed out something that does need to realized more … that women tend to take care of the group and work to befriend the others … something not seen in study of males. This is especially distinctive in Bonobos … and it is a driving force in why it tends to be women who invite others in our homes to eat (more often than men in general).

  4. اﻹنتقال اﻵني
    We need to (Instantaneous transfer) For the arrival of man to distant countries in five seconds . We need electronic devices to develop an Instantaneous Transfer project, . (Immediate transport) depends on the measurement of quantum tangles . Quantum entanglement is quantitative telepathy . Remote rooms should be prepared for an immediate transport project experience . Different experiments should be performed on many animals For the immediate transportation project
    .

  5. The Islamic burqa is a great example to study for cultural differences .
    I say naturally people are alarmed when someone is hiding there identity or not allowing you to judge expressions like eye contact etc.
    Culturally it doesn't scare muslims that grow up with the scared women behind the veils it is programmed into Muslim to identfy them as the weakest link.
    In the west they are hiding something

  6. Id love to know if this panel could truly find enough differences to define man as smart compared to local animals in ore colonial Africa, India, or other hunter gathers before civilized under colonialism.

  7. sigh, so low vision. of course children will teach eachother as their survival instincts are safe. they have families and food, and the main reward here is social. by teaching u gain the most.
    you guys seem to lack the essential variables of human design, and categorize them appropriately.
    thats why our science is in such a state. incompetence. people making some tests, and doing false interpretations of them that influence the culture NEGATIVELY

  8. Fuentes… Consider: the meaning of Red vs. Green, between western cultures and those of the Far East (to wit: traffic lights)

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