Friday, November 23, 2007

Education & The Social Intelligence

To survive and thrive, we have to understand how the world's various systems function. This encompasses such things as knowing the flow of days and seasons; whether a dropped object will bounce, splat, or break; and how water shifts among its fluid, frozen, and gaseous states.
Human life is a major subset of the world's systems, so much of our time and energy is focused on trying to understand and get along with each other. Last month's column focused on the sense of gratitude we feel when objects and other people enrich our life. This month's related column will focus on an excellent new book by Daniel Goleman, Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relations (2006).
Goleman rose to international prominence a decade ago with Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than I.Q. (1995), an informative, easily read book that synthesized the dramatic developments that had been emerging out of emotion research. The conventional wisdom had previously viewed our emotional arousal system as a disembodied and often unruly phenomenon. Goleman demystified it by explaining its underlying neurobiology, and by then suggesting how we can consciously use this biological thermostat as a force to enhance the quality of our life.
In Social Intelligence, Goleman similarly synthesizes the growing body of cultural and neuroscience research on how we develop social awareness and manage our social relationships. We can thus consider the two books as companion volumes—about understanding what occurs within (Emotional Intelligence) and what occurs between (Social Intelligence).
What occurs between can be thought of as the range of relationships that exist within a social continuum. At one end we're simply emotionally neutral and detached from a person with whom we're interacting (such as a supermarket checker). At the other end, we're rude and exploitative, assuming that the other person exists at the level of an object, to satisfy our needs. Psychopaths and sociopaths would exemplify behavior at that far end of the continuum.
The relationships in the center of this continuum imply a close empathetic human relationship that's temporarily or permanently tuned to the experiences, needs, and feelings of another person. Goleman suggests that we are constantly involved in both close and detached relationships, and that our relationship with a person can appropriately shift back and forth between close and detached, depending on the circumstances.
Many relationships are better off detached, in that most folks don't appreciate intrusive restaurant waiters; and realize that the professional judgment of one's physician, attorney, or counselor may be negatively affected by a close personal relationship.
Exploring a Social Brain
Neuroimaging technologies have revolutionized the study of complex brain properties and systems. Our brain has been described as a social brain, because hundreds of separate processing systems collaborate in the execution of thought and behavior, and because our brain is organized to empathetically connect us to the thoughts and behaviors of others.
Social decisions and behavior are especially complex, and so they require the collaboration of many processing systems. The research technologies capable of imaging such processes have emerged only recently, so Goldman's explanations and discussions of the relative brain systems thus have an exciting immediacy about them.
Our Social Brain
Like objects and fluids, social relationships can also bounce, splat, break, flow, freeze, and even disappear into a gaseous state. Since an organism's potential resources and survival are enhanced within a collaborative setting, the development of good social relationships creates a decided advantage. Social competence has thus become a central human property.
Goleman explores and explains the various brain processing systems and combinations of systems that allow us to be sociably adept. Chief among these is the recently discovered mirror neuron system that is central to social thought and behavior. Mirror neurons prime our own movements, but they also activate when we observe another person make the same movement. Since any goal-directed motor behavior involves sequences of actions (such as to focus on, reach for, grasp, and then throw a ball), the neuronal sequence that regulates the overall movement thus activates in parallel in the brains of both the actor and the observer. We can therefore infer the intentions and motivations of another person, and act accordingly.
Mirror neurons also activate when we observe an emotional reaction in another person, and so provide the neuronal basis of empathy. Mirror neurons thus help to create the contagious behavior that is so integral to social life—the shared grief at a funeral, the shared joy at a birthday.
Goleman explores social intelligence as both a functional and biological phenomenon. Social intelligence allows us to develop an enhanced awareness of the mind of others, and to develop the skills that we need to maintain appropriate relationships. Goleman also explores these functional elements in terms of the cognitive processing systems that regulate various social behaviors.

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