together we can change ourself

together we can change ourself

Archive for May 2007

Social Intelligence: A Quick Introduction

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Govan Brown was the name of the bus driver who, in the opening of Emotional Intelligence, I recounted encountering one hot day in New York City. Since then I’ve read articles about him – my uplifting encounter was no quirk: he was always friendly to his passengers, welcoming each with a warm smile and greeting. A history buff, he shared an ongoing stream of fascinating tidbits about the places the bus passed; passengers would chuckle, even applaud. Govan Brown driver would shake a child’s hand, answer questions in detail, sometimes recite a bit of poetry, and always give everyone a generous goodbye. During his 20-year career at the wheel, he received more then 1,400 letters of commendation—but not a single complaint.

Contrast his popularity with the plight of a single man whose tale I tell in Social Intelligence. He had been trying speed dating, a system where singles spend precisely five minutes talking with a prospect. After five minutes another bell rings and, if the woman is interested in seeing more of her partner, she gives him her email address. At the starting bell, this bachelor would launch into a non-stop discourse about himself, never asking one question about his partner. The poor guy has never had a woman give him her email address.

Mr. Brown seems appears to be a “natural,” the kind of person who always seems to know just what to do and what to say in any predicament. The lonely bachelor is interpersonally handicapped; though he happens to be a technical whiz, his self-absorption makes him a dating disaster. Govan Brown exemplified social intelligence – abilities like empathy and social ease that make people sparkle interpersonally — and which the bachelor desperately needs to improve.

People with social intelligence are gifted in the small acts that enrich relationships. They are the people who can get along in any group, who others like, and who you feel good talking with. By contrast, those who falter in this human ability may be quite intelligent in terms of IQ, but just can’t seem to get it right when it comes to people. They may talk in ways that make them seem cold, arrogant or abrasive, and miss seemingly obvious cues to how others react to them. They feel “off,” and make others uncomfortable.

The concept of social intelligence has been around since 1920. But only in the last few years has neuroscience begun to reveal the brain basis for interpersonal brilliance, the circuitry that orchestrates our relationships. This new science of human connections reveals surprising insights into what happens inside our brain and body as we interact with another person:

The brain’s areas for movement and emotion are peppered with “mirror neurons,” a newly discovered class of brain cells that act like neural WiFi. These neurons specialize in tuning into the person we are with and creating in our brain a replica of the other’s emotions, actions, and intentions – tuning us to their wavelength.
The “social brain” wires us to connect. This network of brain structures, neuroscientists are discovering, is dedicated to sensing, thinking about, and reacting to people, and navigates us through every encounter. Even when the brain is just idling, doing nothing in particular, three of four neural areas that remain most active are involved with social connection; it’s as though mulling over our relationships were the brain’s favorite TV channel.
The social brain connects powerfully to the circuits for handling stress and to the immune system. Being with our loved ones in a positive way boosts our secretion of soothing brain chemicals like oxytocin, which counters stress and improves our immune robustness. This means the people we love the most can be biological allies, especially when we suffer from chronic diseases or an impaired immune system.
This social circuitry appears crucial for our life happiness, health and success. Take happiness. Surveys find that it’s not the money we have, but the richness of our relationships, that more strongly predicts a person’s level of happiness. As for health, research shows that having ongoing personal conflicts is as strong a risk factor for getting a cold as low levels of vitamin C or sleeping poorly – and being socially isolated is even worse.

When it comes to doing our best at work – or in school – there are surprising consequences from our relationships. The brain has an optimal zone for mental efficiency, which lets us excel in whatever we do. But that zone turns out to be fragile – and our interactions can knock us out of it or keep us in. Emotions are contagious, and they flow most strongly from the more powerful person in a relationship. So a nasty boss or threatening teacher can create enough distress to keep us from that zone, while a supportive leader or encouraging teacher can help us stay in it.

Social intelligence makes people naturally attuned and helpful. If you remember the teacher who you learned the most from in school, he or she was almost certainly an example of this interpersonal aptitude.

Perhaps the main lesson from social intelligence is that we are all part of each other’s inner resources; the social brain links us inextricably. This suggests a new way of thinking about social responsibility: it begins in every interaction, from a casual encounter to being with those we love most dearly, when we act in ways that create beneficial states in the other person.

Likewise, we can take the measure of our main relationships in terms of the ratio of positive-to-negative interactions they offer us. The bottom line: nourish your social connections.

Written by Bhushan Kulkarni

May 29, 2007 at 12:18 pm