FacebookTwitterYoutubeInstagramGoogle Plus

Big Ideas
The Social Synapse: Neuroscience and the Roots of Human Connections

Humans work together on enormous scales to build complex tools as large as cities and create social networks that span the globe. What is the key to our success? This program examines the development of the human brain — and the brains of other animals — asking how neurons orchestrate communal behavior and guide group interactions, demonstrating how our social nature is key to our humanity. MODERATOR: John Donvan PARTICIPANTS: Louise Barrett, Agustín Fuentes, Kevin Laland, Kevin Ochsner, Dietrich Stout Find out more about the program and participants: https://www.worldsciencefestival.com/programs/the-social-brain/ This program is part of the Big Ideas Series, made possible with support from the John Templeton Foundation. Original Program Date: June 2, 2017Learn More

View Additional Video Information

THE SOCIAL SYNAPSE: NEUROSCIENCE AND THE ROOTS OF HUMAN CONNECTIONS – WORLD SCIENCE FESTIVAL

(Video Clip)

NARRATOR: 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 17 TO 19 WEEKS. AN INFANT CAN MAKE EYE CONTACT AT ONE TO TWO MONTHS. AND WE ARRIVE WITH A SPECIAL GIFT, A BRAIN DESIGNED FOR SOCIAL INTERACTION, 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 EVER MORE 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 SYNTAX ACTUALLY DRIVEN HUMAN EVOLUTION AS OUR BRAINS BECAME BIGGER AND MORE COMPLEX? WE MAY BE ONLY BEGINNING TO UNDERSTAND THE INTERACTION AND HOW IT HAS SHAPED WHO WE ARE.

JOHN DONVAN, ABC CORRESPONDENT
So I I was just watching that video and I was wondering maybe a little show of hands: when that guy yawned, how many people have that slight push of a yawn coming, yeah? Well it’s almost everybody. You don’t know that guy but he is— something he did triggered 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.

DONVAN
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.
DONVAN:
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 Laland.

DONVAN:
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 and 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 Agustin Fuentes.

DONVAN:

[00:04:50] 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-director of 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.

DONVAN
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. Affective. That’s with an A – Please welcome Kevin Ochsner.

DONVAN
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 Dietrich Stout.

DONVAN
I mentioned in the opening, the word culture and 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 two Kevins. Raise your hand so that everybody knows. OK. So when I asked Kevin, you have to guess which one I’m going to go to but I’ll start with Kevin Laland: What do we mean, in the context in which we’re discussing it tonight of course, what do we mean by culture?

KEVIN LALAND: BIOLOGIST, UNIVERSITY OF ST ANDREWS
Well I’m a biologist rather than anthropologist so I take that as a liberty to define culture however I want. So when I use the term culture, I’m thinking in very broad brush terms about our ability to acquire knowledge and skills from other individuals. To express that knowledge in our tools, our technology, our engineering, our behavior. And critically for me to build on that reservoir of shared knowledge iteratively, sort of fashioning ever more efficient and diverse solutions to life’s challenges like a sharper blade or a more stable canoe.

DONVAN
Is culture something that only humans can have…

LALAND
No

DONVAN
…in your definition?

LALAND
In my definition other animals also acquire knowledge from each other. They also propagate that information amongst themselves. They also invent novel refinements of that behavior but there are differences between the cultures the other animals have and humans have. So 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.

DONVAN
Does anybody have a dramatically different or supplementary definition of culture?

AGUSTÍN FUENTES: ANTHROPOLOGIST, UNIVERSITY OF NOTRE DAME
Yeah, humans, as an anthropologist, one thing that’s really important, I agree with Kevin completely, is 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.

DONVAN
And again different from animals?

FUENTE
Yeah yeah there’s a difference in the sort of intensity in extensiveness of human culture relative to many other organisms.

DONVAN
Louise you are nodding yes very much on the right.

LOUISE BARRETT: ANTHROPOLOGIST, UNIVERSITY OF LETHBRIDGE
Yes, I was nodding yes very much. I would just… I would just add to that. I think that another part of culture that builds on what Augustin was saying is the way in which because we have 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 that cognitive system to include those so we have much more extended minds, I would say, than most other animals.

DONVAN: Right

DONVAN
And Kevin how do you use the term culture in this conversation?

KEVIN OCHSNER: NEUROSCIENTIST, COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY
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 and 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 vary certainly nationally, but this kind of definition allows us to describe cultures at the level of families, at the level of any kind of social group that can have its own intrinsic culture

DONVAN
And it can be going to the opera and going to museums?

OCHSNER
It can, in New York or other cities it might entail that perhaps.

DONVAN
Dietrich how about for you.

DIETRICH STOUT: EVOLUTIONARY ANTHROPOLOGIST, EMORY UNIVERSITY
How you define culture depends on who you’re talking to and what questions you’re trying to address. 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.

[00:09:57] So 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. It allows you to have things like religions and art and so forth. And so for some anthropologists, they want to call it culture with a capital C, it has to have that component.

DONVAN
OK since we have that, that term is out there. Now we can use it with some familiarity it’s clear you’re going to 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.

DONVAN
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 a very successful social animal.

LALAND
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 do and that gives us a baseline which to understand what’s different or special against humans. So the approach that I take is no different from that, we’ll study animal behavior. We’re particularly interested in the origins of culture.


DONVAN
And what are the insights you’re coming across?

LALAND
I study innovation and social learning in animals. So let’s take each of those in turn. So for the longest time, so the animals didn’t really invent very much, that they were instinct driven creatures, but as we studied animals and got a better understanding of their natural behavior, we were better placed to detect departures 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 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 that have too hard of a shell for them to break. So they just put the shells on the road, cars run them over, and 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 at zebra crossings, so that they can drag and retrieve the nuts very safely. So there are all kinds of cute examples along these lines.

LALAND
One of my favorites is one of Jane Goodall’s chimpanzees called Mike, who discovered these two antique kerosene cans and he could bang them together and make a very loud noise and that would intimidate his rivals. And so he incorporated this into his dominance display and shot up the hierarchy and became alpha male in record time. So so there are many many marvelous examples of this that we see in nature. But we can also investigate innovation in a more systematic way in the laboratory by presenting populations of animals with novel tasks that they have to solve. Then we look at the characteristics of the soul or the circumstances that lead to those solutions arising.

LALAND
So we’ve done a lot of work with birds where we’ve investigated the spread of novel behaviors through bird populations.  Here’s an example you can see now. These are Zebra finches and a student of mine (unintelligible) carried out this task where he taught one of these birds to flip over one of the lids and grab the food, which was a piece of spinach. And you can see all of this mayhem going on, and we have to try and make sense of this. In some cases, they’re learning from the demonstrating individual, and we monitor the spread. And this is another example. So this is what carried out in the field. These are bearded capuchins in Brazil. This is what carried out for my student Rachel Kandel so she’ll present this puzzle box to the monkeys and this is a task that can be solved in two ways. You can see it’s going to pull on the green handle in a second, that’s one way of solving the task and it gets its food. There’s also a blue flap which you can lift and that’s another way of solving it.

LALAND
So we’ll bait some populations with individuals that solve it one way and other populations 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 carried out by Lucian Akland from Oxford University on these great tits which again is a really nice study carried out by this researcher who presented these birds in the local woods with this little foraging task: to 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 they have learned that particular behavior and you can see it spreading through the population and the lines connecting individual represent the amount of time they spend together. So you can see social learning happening in front of your eyes. Here the information flow follows through the social network.

DONVAN:
[00:15:17] And then the assumption is that we have these faculties too? But we have them better. More developed?

LALAND:
And I think that there’s plenty of evidence to support that. But better in a particular sense, which is that there is that ratcheting up of complexity that we see in human societies so that we can produce a solution to 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 that we see novel behaviors spread through the population and then we’ll see a different novel behavior spread, but we rarely see evidence that they’re building on their previous solutions.

DONVAN:
Augustin, something that I find a little hard to follow is that I think the argument being made here is that over time these skills get passed on, but that culture is inherited in an almost evolutionary sense. But a bird learning how to do a 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? So what was this argument about culture being inherited?

FUENTES
So let’s even take that bird example, and then give a human example. So what you’re really seeing that trait or skill as we just saw is in the culture, and it is in the social group: it’s there as we said earlier in the extended group.

DONVAN:
What if the whole group dies.

FUENTES:
Well of the entire group dies and you are a great tit, that behavior is dead for that population. Right, for every practitioner, but that capacity is part of the social interaction in the landscape. In humans we take that, as Kevin just said, and 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 bottle but if it’s a particular bottle, I pour it into a glass and I share it and we raise it, and we drink it, and 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 societies of animals in addition to humans. The idea that evolution is just about mating and dying; that’s a very antiquated and actually a misrepresentation: that’s not what Darwin said and it’s not what we understand as evolutionary biology today.

DONVAN:
Can I repeat back: what I think I’ve heard you say is that the culture that organisms create or animals create or human-animals create becomes a part of that environment that then shapes the genetic reaction to the environment?

FUENTES:
And the behavior and the physiological action.  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.

DONVAN:
I want to go to an experimental moment. can you bring out your box? So tell us what this is about.

LAYLAND
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 an experimental way to mimic that that we could present to two 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, where you’ll get a low-grade reward. So if you’re a chimpanzee or capuchin monkey you might get a piece of carrot and then you can build on that and can refine that if you like by pressing down 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 this knob at the end, which in turn you can slide the door further still and that would give the highest grade reward which be a grape.

LALAND
So these are increasingly desirable 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 experimental apparatus to small groups of nursery school children age four to five to groups of capuchin monkeys and groups of chimpanzees.

LALAND
[00:19:51] And the idea was to see. Were they capable of solving this would they cope with this kind of simulated cumulative culture. And if not to try and work out why not. What would we thought it was quite likely that children would be able to solve this. And 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 had multiple children in multiple groups solving the task at the highest levels of the solutions spread through their groups. Whereas you might get the odd chimpanzee or capuchin monkey that solve 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 ask, are we able to say well what was it that the children were doing different. And we found they were teaching each other, they were pointing to each other thing.

LALAND
You press this here, you turn this here that teaching was largely through verbal instruction and the communication that the children engaged in enhanced the performance of the recipient. Whereas the other two species engaged in plenty communication but didn’t do anything for the recipient’s performance. The children sit down and they imitate each others’ actions, they produce matching manipulations of the box with very little matching. The other two species and if you don’t help each other there were many many acts of sort of spontaneous pro-sociality where even they even they’d give retrieved rewards to other children, which I think shows that they understood that the other children shared their intentions and goals and

DONVAN:
Did you bring this all the way from Scotland with you?

LALAND
I did and it’s extremely heavy.

DONVAN:
I want to thank you for that. I don’t want to think what United Airlines made of it

LALAND:
But what it demonstrates is that these high fidelity information transmission mechanisms are critical to this capacity for communication.

DONVAN:
and that Scottish children are really smart.

DONVAN
Augustin as the anthropologist, one of 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.

FUENTES
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 do and can do. I’m not asking how we’re 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 this one female who never had offspring and to to sort of be part of this group you have to have offspring right.

FUENTES
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 around and she’d be about 10 metres from me running I’d look over she’d be about five metres from me sort of look around me about two metres from me and then I’d feel the sort of warmth on my thigh and she would just sit there and sort of lean against me like this. She was, she needed social interaction as a primate as a social organism and she found a very socially creative way to do it. So that’s something that we share in common with the other primates but we on the other hand when we need these interactions we do other things.

FUENTES
We build houses, we build fences. We see other people as our kin and define 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.

DONVAN
And how do we do it?

FUENTES
That’s a very good question. I think a lot of the ways you can do it and 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 what makes us do incredibly good things and gives us the capacity to horrendously bad things.

DONVAN:
Your work has had this very specific relationship to culture in terms of communication …talk about that a little bit..

FUENTES
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 days. These etchings.

DONVAN:
We can talk about it now actually.

FUENTES
OK. So there are eighty thousand, one hundred twenty thousand years ago. If you look here these are pieces of ochre a little bit of red clay like material that eighty thousand years ago in South Africa. Some one or group of people took and made these lines in and made the lines and this little piece of Oakers about this big. And they had even smaller ones that that that they carved little lines into.

FUENTES
[00:24:48] 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 hashmarks in red rocks. It’s not just that these marks were being made 80000 120000 200000 years ago. It’s that they had meaning to the people making them and they use 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 kids showing how to get some food right. It’s actually changing the way in which we perceive. This is a wonderful example.

FUENTES:
This is a piece of ochre that’s this big. It’s very hard to even see. But they spent hours probably getting these really little straight lines. There’s three or four straight lines and another line down it. I have no idea why they did that but they did it and they knew why they did it.

DONVAN: Did they’re doing that grow our brains?

FUENTES:
Our brains are the same size now as they were then, maybe even ours 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 perceive one another by imposing meaning onto the world. We start to shift the way our brains interpret perceive and engage the world.

DONVAN
And Louise, that’s the sense in which we mean culture. moving on, that this imbuing of meaning, this communication, this connectedness is that in a sense what we’re talking about?

BARRETT
Yeah, I mean I think what happens with human children, you know 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 the room you eat in and this is the room you sleep in. Right. And you don’t have to be taught that is just you participate in your culture. You’re learning all the time, you’re picking up these kinds of things because most of it’s 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 do I mean Halloween 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.


BARRETT
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 their and they’re very proud. But the child is participating in her culture and over time that public display will become internalized. You’ll understand why is she’s participating what the meaning the deep deep meaning of Princess Leia is. And why 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 Agustin is getting at that. But it’s through this, you participate in your culture and through that participation you kind to absorb your culture into you and not just the culture you’re born in but your entire cultural history. And I mean it is 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 feed back. And as you were saying like you know it changes the way natural selection acts on our genes. So we kind of select for our own genetic evolution.

DONVAN
Louise, how does your work shed light again on how we do it?

BARRETT
Well I mean again I work on on primates and humans.
when you spend all day long out with monkey, well 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’s what really got me interested is like when you are a nonlinguistic animal. These are my vervet monkeys here that we that we study. When you’re a linguistic animal, if you don’t see something happen it might as well never have happened.

BARRETT
You know you have no means of transmitting that information. So it’s interesting to like look at a non-human society and nonlinguistic society and look at how their sociality functions and then come back into the human world and then you’ll all the things that Agustin was saying are thrown into this very very sharp relief, that we have things like marriage and money and that 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.

DONVAN
And so were you primarily drawn to this study because you were primarily interested in learning about humans or are you primarily interested in learning about the primates?

BARRETT
I began as an ecologist, and I was a plant ecologist, I wasn’t even an animal ecologist. So then I got a… I did a course in my third year university on primate behavior and I was that just it just like something clicked and I was really fascinated by it. And I always I was really interested– I really wanted to go to Africa. I’d always wanted to go to Africa and so in a kind of series of accidents I got the chance to go and study monkeys in Uganda for my PhD. But I kind of did it accidentally and then so I was real, I was an animal behaviorist, I was interested in animals for their own sake and I still am but as a consequence of going out every day and living it and living a completely different kind of life, having seen a completely different way of being. It kind of when you come back into the human world you realize how deeply weird it is. Like humans are weird and that’s what got me interested in finding out about why humans are weird.

DONVAN
[00:30:01] But humans are weird. But is that our secret strength?

AGUSTIN:

It’s like a secret power.

BARRETT:
Our secret power. Yeah, I think. I think that deep weirdness is we don’t see it. We don’t see it because we swim in the water so to speak

DONVAN:
Kevin tell us about how your work relates to the topic we’re talking about tonight.

OSCHNER
Sure. So I work in an area that’s the intersection of sort of 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.

DONOVAN
Do you mean that in very small ways that little one to one real interaction?

OSCHNER
Yes for sure. So the primary tool we use for doing this is functional brain imaging. So if any of you 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 flatbed not moving on their back. This is a little bit difficult but luckily we have 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 capture many of them

DONOVAN

Wait. So in the MRI machine and they’re watching movies and playing games.

OSCHNER

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 is 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.

DONOVAN
And to what degree are you trying to map, track, trace social interactions.

OSCHNER
I think my lab does that 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 it 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 different… you could imagine each part of your brain is part of sort of like 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.

DONVAN
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 for autism, being taught how to get into an elevator and ride it is 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 we’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.

OSCHNER:
We do try to study that kind of complex social interactions: 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 or from 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’.

BARRETT
It’s very interesting that you mentioned autism because one of the arguments is that children and people with autism they lack a 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 that they can you know but they don’t behave like autistic individuals. They don’t behave like 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 could 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 what you have in monkey society?

DONVAN:
Are you reaching any preliminary conclusions or some guesses hunches that you’re working towards?

BARRETT
I think these kind of these sort of emotional empathic connections we have are very important. I think we use them far more than we than we think we do. I mean there’s these are very old findings from ethology. But you know this is kind of thing when you see people at a distance and you’re walking down a corridor and you just kind of you know you acknowledge them, you just raise eyebrows, you go ‘oh hi’ and then if you notice that you don’t really look at each other again til you’re much closer. Right. Actually, if you want to freak someone out, as you greet them and you acknowledge them with your eyebrow flash then just keep looking at them intently as you walk closer and closer. It will. They will feel very uncomfortable.

BARRETT
[00:35:15] And the other things like if you want an empty seat next you on a train or bus, you know everyone’s like I’ll put my bag on there, I’ll put by coat on there you know that keep everyone away. So some people are going to say could you move that or is there 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. That. That is the key. That’s the one thing I have learned from psychologists that’s useful. Yes. And so those are the sorts of things that you see in monkeys. 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 oil the wheels and help these more complex forms of cooperation run smoothly?

DONOVAN
Dietrich you you’re really coming from, in a sense left field, with the thing that you are so good at, which is making stone tools the way that the way that the ancients did. How’d you get into the stone tool making business?

STOUT
Well I mean 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, maybe philosophy or something, and I had a professor who was a good one and he told me to take some anthropology classes and I took an archaeology class and one of the lectures was introducing the topic of stone tools. And they said, “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 of 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.

STOUT
And I said, Well you know we need to study this if we actually want it. Obviously our modern mind came through evolutionary processes from the past. But how are we going to get evidence of that? And it seemed to me that this was a somewhat underutilized for that kind of question, that source of information. And so I said, “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 rock.

STOUT
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 require at least a little bit of skill and some take it to very high levels. I’ve always remained with very primitive stone tools. So but if you want to study later periods of prehistory, you actually have to invest vast amounts of time to learn the things that they did, which were very sophisticated. So I stay with, what I know, kind of homo erectus level stuff myself.

DONVAN
But 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 hope you show a little bit first how it works and then talk about what you think is going on the brain and why that matters to this conversation.

STOUT
OK. Sure yeah well I happen to have brought a hundred pounds of rock with me in case you were going to ask.

AGUSTIN

And now the other social part of the show.

STOUT
So what I can show you is something I’ve been working on a bit which is how to make a later Acheulean handaxe so this is the kind of tool that you might find from about five hundred thousand 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 symmetrical and quite thin in cross section which gives you a lot of cutting edge for the amount of weight 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, broken pieces of rock, we call them flakes.

STOUT
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 napping is a lot about to make a lot about edges. Right. So I’m going to try to establish an acute angle that I can use. Right and so I’ve been 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.

DONVAN:
[00:40:04] Can you just hold that 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. Just hold that for a second. All right.

STOUT:
So I just removed a couple of flakes there. And you see 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 and I may be breaking off too much there. And do this back and forth until it starts to, you can already see it starting to assume a little bit more of the kind of shape you might want right. Sorry. There you can see.

STOUT
So anyway I would do that for a while and then suddenly it would look like this. And so you can see in 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 flakes that I want to kind of 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 initiated 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 they are starting to invade into the piece. Let me see if I can get off one good flake as a demonstration. This is something we call a platform preparation.

STOUT
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 that 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. 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.

DONVAN:
Do you enjoy doing this.

STOUT
Yes it’s a lot of fun.

DONVAN
Yeah yeah.

DONVAN:
So let’s get to what it means. So you have students doing this and you had.. you were doing brain imaging. Now again these you were not able to put them inside an MRI.

STOUT:
Well sure you can do the um, you show them videos.

DONVAN:
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 so we can see how 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 used to be like cutting edge in the early 90s or something, people don’t 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 period of time and

DONVAN:
Is that where the student would get injected in the foot and it hurt?

STOUT:
Yeah.

DONVAN:
Yeah.

STOUT:
So you know the reason yeah the foot was apparently very difficult and the reason why we did that was so that wouldn’t mess with our arms while they were doing the flint knapping.

DONVAN
So we’ve got a guy with like a tube in his foot and he’s banging a rock and you’re tracing his brain? OK

STOUT:
Yeah they uh, you know they put port in his foot and they took it out so it wasn’t it wasn’t that bad. But yeah. So you could actually do it. And we got images that way.

DONVAN:
So what did you learn?

STOUT:
Well what the the. So 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 archaeology 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 sort of.. whereas the early stone toolmaking was very demanding of perceptual motor coordination, you know think like sport or craft or something like that.

STOUT:
The making the hand ax required more what we call top down planning and control kind of activity. And so that was the 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.

DONVON
[00:45:12] 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?

STOUT:
Yeah. Well Kevin participated in the experiment along these lines but it’s hard to know for sure exactly how things were learned in the past. All right. So I was lucky enough to do some ethnography in 1999 in New Guinea with some modern student toolmakers there and I showed up and I wanted to record their behavior. And one of the first things a scientist like OK I want you to be isolated over here so I can study you. And they say no way. We all 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 they’re sort of imposing this idea that oh technology is this purely nonsocial functional thing that we do over there you know and that’s not how they saw it.

STOUT
I suspect that’s more accurate to how things were in pre-history than sort of our modernist ideas about the differences in 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 rediscover this yourself you know and in fact of course as archaeologist that’s what we spent a lot of years doing is rediscovering these techniques so it’s possible but it seems improbable after a certain point.

DONVAN:
How far are you going as a careful scientist in terms of your assertion that this that this tool making an impact on the development of the brains of the people who did it got them talking also?

STOUT:
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 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 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 in 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.

DONVAN:
Yeah I mean I was going to bring that question back to Kevin. Where would you go with that thought.

LALAND
So we’ve been interested in that in that feedback loop. And one thing that led us to start thinking along those lines lines is if you look at humans we see we’re very creative. We see the 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 feedback going on? One way we could address that would be to look at patterns of innovation in social learning in other animals and see whether they covariate with brain size. So we looked across primates with compiled databanks 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 they they invent more new behavior. They copy each other more than do small brained species of primates.

LALAND
And this led us to endorse the argument that this was no coincidence that natural selection might be favoring innovativeness we might be favoring more efficient, more accurate forms of copying and this would drive a feedback loop that would favor those structures or capabilities in the brain that perceptual systems computational capabilities the ability to take in the perceptual inputs of others and transform them into the matching motor outputs. So these these kind of capabilities would be favored in a feedback loop that would only incidentally be manifested in bigger brains but we would feedback to further enhance the accuracy and efficiency of copying and we inferred that if that were the case then since a lot of the novel innovations that we’re seeing in all primates. So socially transmitted behaviors that we’re seeing foraging behaviors they often involve tools. They often involve animals extracting food from substrates in complex ways that we should see rates of social learning and innovation correlated across primates with the rates of tools, rates of extractive foraging for their diets and other measures of the complexity of their behavior and even longer lives.

LALAND:

[00:50:17] And again when we looked at this, we compiled databases for all of these things we looked at to see do these things all go together. We found indeed they did. And I mean so much so you could actually you can actually do a factor analysis which allows us to kind of partition the variants and all of these different measures. And the bulk of the variance is the longest single dimension which you can think of as intelligence. And you know, you plot that against brain size, you got a positive relationship. And you can also plot that… 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 and in four distinct primate groups the the capuchins, the macaques, 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 innovation is driving brain evolution and the evolution of complex behavior.

DONVAN:
I want to invite Louise to 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 refer to as the brain is solely the organ that’s inside our skull.

BARRETT
Or the mind. The mind is outside, the brain is inside your skull.

DONVAN:
OK. If you don’t.

BARRETT
You don’t want that leaking out.

DONVAN:
Sometimes it’s located elsewhere

BARRETT:
So what I mean one of the reasons like I got interested—

DONVAN:
You’ve gotten off some very good lines tonight.

BARRETT
One of the reasons I got interested 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 a very big brain. And so how come big brains are quite rare and how come there were so many successful organisms who do show quite flexible behavior with very tiny brain. So that’s what that’s where I got interested in then. 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. 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 sort of go The brain does this and the brain does that. So it’s not part of the person as you know and it’s always like your brain. Now I actually went to a talk once with this very famous neurosciencist Chris Frith and he said “Your brain knows more about this than you do. “

BARRETT
And it’s like hang on, you’re like hang on. But I am my brain and you just said I was my brain and now it just now knows more than I. So I find those kinds of things, that you know you get very into this kind of slightly dualistic 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 well what he’s doing there is action is like doing stuff to world. It’s like breaking thing you know that’s what you see when you watch baboobs. When you watch capuchin monkeys they’re trying to break the world. They’re very destructive in various many ways and 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 it. We bought a net for it and had gloves and goggles and all these things and then we left it parked out the way we thought no. And then we came back and the baboons had found and the goggles were gone and the netting was stripped right. The baboons have been all over it and taken you know just to kind of understand what to say to see how they could understand the world. Well they kind of try and pull it apart and break it. And I think that’s what we do too. And I think that’s the origins of our intelligence.

FUENTES
But ahh…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 axe. So what we do is humans. This back to our beginning of our conversation and culture what we do is 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 now… that this is 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, a history, a knowledge, a shared ideology that allows us to see inside that rock is this other tool this other thing that is particular to humans. And it’s particularly interesting

BARRETT:
It is. it’s one more thing I wanted to ask you is you know like sculptors to say oh the statue was just in there. I just had to like, you know is that what happens that is that when you get the core, does the core somehow also dictate how you approach the thing in the final product.

STOUT:

[00:54:57] Not not not really only in the broadest terms, you’re like well this is going to be a long axis and after you know this part’s going to be a problem. 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 like well I need 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 these issues of meaning and representation and symbolism and you know we on the one hand were 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. But but you know when they do these foraging behaviors that they learn is not meaningful in the same way as human art is or they not. I’m just interested I just I don’t have answers but to probe that New York illogical record you know and it is it really different.

STOUT
You know these artistic objects that you showed Agustin, are very you know evocative to us because we don’t know why they did it. We call it nonfunctional. But of course they had a function. It was a perhaps a social communicative function. And is that really different neurally in terms of evolved neural substrates from the functions just because one of them supports harvesting calories and the other supports your interactions. Are these are the questions that we need to ask to understand how these things evolved, is there a social brain apart from general intelligence in your opinions?

DONOVAN: Kevin?

OCHSNER
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 are 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 and 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 hold 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.

OCHSNER:
And that’s a really abstract kind of symbolic inference where we have language for personality and feelings states like somebody is gregarious or manipulative or deceptive and so on. And that’s symbolic terminology is really useful for us.


OCHSNER:
If you imagine the example that Louise just gave about also thinking you don’t live in New York because lots of these behaviors you see at some point in New York. And you know like walking down the street and having somebody just stare at you as you walk by or having people check you out. So that’s what you’re wearing today and you get that it. Yes. And in New York you learn to just accept and allow that kind of behavior. And it’s like that’s normative here. It’s ok whatever people are doing you can run naked through Times Square and people go OK. So that’s happening today. All right. I’ve got to get to work. So but trying to infer the intentions like why was somebody doing that.

OCHSNER:
Why is this person patting the seat next to me. That requires an unbelievable set of social skills as 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 we use the, you implicitly use the social norms to try to decide whether or not the behavior another person is engaging in is something about them or something about the social norm. So if I’m just sitting there quietly on the subway, doesn’t tell me that much about that person but if they’re patting 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 is the ability to help.

DONVAN:
Should we be making a distinction between calculating intelligence and the intelligent being intelligent enough to know that the walk person walking towards you is a threat. Are those two different kinds of intelligence. Do we even know that?

OCHSNER:
[00:59:47] Well there’s certainly some people who think they’re qualitatively different. I think we’re bringing to bear all of these different skills all the time in 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 tasks that are not supposed to be not social but I’m using that 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 you 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 used to remember phone numbers or solve math problems at the same time.

OCHSNER:
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

DONVAN
Agustin you were nodding a lot during that.

FUENTES
Yeah I think something that’s really important in this is as 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 is this idea of symbol and connection and the sociality. Right. The whole idea that for us sometimes patting the chair next to us as example might freak someone out but to someone else some might say wow hey I want to go sit next to her. I’m going to move right here. You know talk. And so our capacity to navigate these landscapes, these unbelievably complex as 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 what’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

DONOVAN
A parallel with what you’re just talking about and 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 going to anthropologists we’ve got a couple of psychologists and I’m wondering and a paleontologist, are we.. These divisions do they make sense in your field?

LALAND
We’re interdisciplinary animals. I think is the answer.

FUENTES
The capacity, I mean knowledge the world is not divided up into like anthro departments and  biology and political science. The world is out there. We for some reason think the world works that way.

FUENTES
That’s why a lot of students get bored in college .

DONOVAN
Agustin if we’re so smart and so social, why do we have war?

FUENTES
Because we’re so smart and so social. One of the incredible things we’ve been talking about all this collaboration all of us working together thinking about affect, interpreting behavior creating symbol imbuing meaning into things. One of the amazing things that humans can do is cooperate. Kevin’s example just shows 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 used to. And we have this incredible capacity for cooperation and to make symbols. 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.

FUENTES:
Our ability to think symbolically to de-humanize 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 a kind of ferociousness, a kind of potential for incredible cruelty.

FUENTES
But that downside is also the upside right. There is I think in case even right today where there’s a lot of problems 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 want to 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.

DONVAN:
[01:04:45] Anybody else optimistic based on your work.

BARRETT
I’m optimistic. Just generally I’m optimistic. But I think one of the things I think that’s interesting is we now have named this new epoch the Anthropocene. We’ve come up with this name because we’re the largest geological force. So now we are in this Anthropocene epoch in which we govern things like the climate which has never happened before in the history of the earth. And I think part of why that makes me optimistic is well I think part of the problem is often with things like trying to get to grips with things like climate change as we often see ourselves as standing apart from nature that we either. It’s that you know it’s wild and we have to tame it or we have to control it. Oh you know there’s always something delicate that we have to preserve but we are parts 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 Anthroposcene generates more of an understanding of that that we are not we don’t stand up outside of nature and culture is our nature. Do you know what I mean culture or not?

DONVAN:
I’m gonna let Kevin take one shot as we wrap up.

OCHSNER
Yeah I I had two thoughts so one is it might help to remember that capacities for empathy and compassion aren’t gendered. There’s an interesting lesson from the history of neuroscience research where for a long time in non-human models of biomedical research only males who 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 Shelley Taylor who wrote a book called The Tending instinct which is all about how when you look at the response to stress and threat in females it’s more tend to my kin 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.

DONVAN:
You’ve been great. Thank you so much. Thank you everybody else.  Bye bye.

Big Ideas
The Social Synapse: Neuroscience and the Roots of Human Connections

Humans work together on enormous scales to build complex tools as large as cities and create social networks that span the globe. What is the key to our success? This program examines the development of the human brain — and the brains of other animals — asking how neurons orchestrate communal behavior and guide group interactions, demonstrating how our social nature is key to our humanity. MODERATOR: John Donvan PARTICIPANTS: Louise Barrett, Agustín Fuentes, Kevin Laland, Kevin Ochsner, Dietrich Stout Find out more about the program and participants: https://www.worldsciencefestival.com/programs/the-social-brain/ This program is part of the Big Ideas Series, made possible with support from the John Templeton Foundation. Original Program Date: June 2, 2017Learn More

View Additional Video Information

Up Next

Playlists