Dr. Relly Nadler: In this week’s show we are going to talk about the field social cognitive neuroscience. We’ll be talking with Dr. Matt Lieberman. He is an Associate Professor at UCLA in the Psychology Department and he is also the Co-Director of the Social Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory. He has a PhD in Psychology from Harvard University and is one of the founders of the field of social cognitive neuroscience. We’ll talk with him about exactly what that is.
It has generated a lot of interest and also new findings in the brain, which is previously been in the black box of the brain. For most of us, we don’t know what is going on but we are going to shed some light into some of the dynamics of which parts of the brain are being activated in what areas that you as leaders are dealing with.
He uses a functional magnetic resonance imaging, a FMRI, and we’ll ask him to talk about exactly what that is, to look as some long standing social issues in social psychology including certain models for self and social perception.
Dr. Leiberman is the founding editor of the journal, Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience. We are going to focus on some of the brain research on how automatic and controlled processes interact in producing emotions, emotion regulation, self-knowledge, feelings of social exclusions, attributions and about other individuals. The placebo effect, automatic behavior, and how we can use this information in leadership development.
Matt, why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself and how you came to work in this field of neuroscience; a little bit of background for our listeners.
Dr. Matt Lieberman: It’s a little bit circuitous. My background was actually originally in philosophy, psychology. I had a strong interest in science fiction and I think the thing that was always tying those things together is that I’m really interested in the way the mind works and how it allows us as human beings to interact with each other the way that we do and in some sense the brain is sort of the greatest invention of science fiction that we can imagine. It’s really hard to think about how you could have something to do with what the brain does.
Dr. Cathy Greenberg: I am truly engaged in this conversation today because I’d like you to talk a little bit about, Matt, on the subject of social neuroscience. If you were to explain to a lay person not familiar with brain and behavioral science at all, how would you describe social neuroscience to them? Then, you have been such a founder in this field, you have the X-systems and the C-Systems. A lot of different components and distinctions that have helped people to understand how the brain is regulated, socially. So if you could talk about social neuroscience and some of the founding information that you have created, I know that would help me out a lot.
Dr. Matt Lieberman: Sure. Social neuroscience has kind of a short history and a long history. I feel a little chagrined when people say I was sort of one of the founders in this area because John Cacioppo was working in this area literally around the time of my birth. So I clearly wasn’t there before him. I think what has gotten really exciting for a lot of folks, is that for about the last 10 years we have been able to peer inside the active brain without using any forms of surgery or anything like that to see what is going on in a regular person’s brain while they are having some kind of experience that we provide for them, or provoke in them as researches.
So, social neuroscience conceptually starts from the perspective of if you want to understand people, if you want to understand their minds and their behavior and things like that, you’ve got to look at what their minds are built out of and that’s the brain.
The brain is clearly the engine of our mind, of our behavior, and so on. But you also have to look at what are the sort of critical inputs to that engine. What makes it go? What makes it respond? That’s the social world that we live in. Most of our motivations at some level boil down to our reactions to other people, the way we want to be seen by other people.
So, those of us who are really interested in social neuroscience, about 10 years ago said, you know nobody has really put these two things together because it’s been hard to do. But now it seems like with Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging we can start to do it in a way that might actually tell us something interesting.
So, that’s how sort of a handful of us got interested in it when we were in graduate school, and there has been a lot of work, I think some of which has been pretty exciting and some of which like anything in any other endeavor, will be forgotten.
Dr. Cathy Greenberg: But, it seems like if you have an opportunity to work with a group of people in a corporate environment; Sr. executives making decisions, that it would be so illuminating for them to have a conversation with you to understand what the differences between how they process information under stress verses when they are relaxed or is this when they are informed verses when they are not informed. What I would love for you to do is just share kind of what you might be able to share with a senior executive or a marketing executive or somebody who would use how information is processed to do something better.
Dr. Matt Lieberman: Sure. These conversations, when I’ve had them and I have had them with a couple of different folks in that situation, it tends to require a longer conversation to really get at what is going to work in their specific context and environment.
You are absolutely right that one of the real advantages of this approach is that we can start doing what is called carving nature at it’s joints.
We have all sorts of personal theories and beliefs about how the mind is kind of divided up. Freud came on the scene a century ago and said, you’ve got this sneaky, unconscious that is going to keep you from thinking certain things but make you act in certain sort of odd ways at certain times.
We know for the most part that he wasn’t right. But, he was trying to explain the weird experiences that we have in everyday life. One of the things that we focused on in my lab is that there is this major division between what we call the X-system in the brain and the C-system in the brain.
The C-system refers to the parts of the brain that are involved in sort of reflective or effortful processing of the brain. So if you are rehearsing a phone number or trying to keep track of what you are going to say next in the conversation, the point you are going to make in a meeting; you are using the C-system and it has certain really great properties.
It’s super flexible so you can think about the animals you saw at the zoo at one moment and the point you are going to make in this meeting in the next moment. But it has some big limitations. It can only do one thing at a time. So you can’t think about the zoo and your next point at the same time. If you try to do both at the same time they interfere with each other and you’ll end up blurting something about the zoo when you should be talking about something at the meeting.
On the other hand, we have this whole other system that we call the X-system which is really sort of involved in intuitive processing, sort of the automatic associates we have. So if I say Romeo everyone will immediately think Juliette whether they want to or not. These systems we tend to share with a lot of other animals besides human.
These systems, the X-system and the C-system, for the most part work together really well, but sometimes there are cross-purposes and that can create lots of havoc in the way we sort of present ourselves to others, or sort of see others regulating or not regulating themselves in a particular environment.
Listen to the complete interview above.