The Power of Two

Friday, September 22, 2006

By Wray Herbert

One of the more memorable minor characters on the TV sitcom Seinfeld was Aaron, also known as the Close Talker. One of Elaine’s many boyfriends, Aaron had the discomfiting habit of putting his face just inches from the face of whoever he was talking to, even complete strangers. He was also friendly to a fault, inviting Jerry’s elderly parents along on dates, to museums, My Fair Lady, even for a romantic dinner. Elaine, confused, finally asks him, “You had fun with Mr. and Mrs. Seinfeld?” He replies: “Yeah. They bought me a Coke.”

It’s hard to process someone like Aaron. He’s not mean, or stupid, or uncultured, or anything else obviously objectionable. He’s just vaguely “off,” and it’s uncomfortable for everyone. It’s not just that he doesn’t know the rules, which he doesn't; he really cannot feel the embarrassment of those around him. He should be squirming, but he's not.

A brain scan would likely reveal that Aaron's "mirror neurons" are out of whack. Mirror neurons are what make us grimace when we see someone else grimace, and by grimacing allow us to actually experience the other's discomfort in intimate connection. Such neurological connection is the foundation of primal empathy, and empathy, according to psychologist and journalist Daniel Goleman, is one of the fundamental building blocks of social awareness and social intelligence. In his new book, called Social Intelligence to echo his 1995 bestseller Emotional Intelligence, Goleman inventories the traits that make some people savvy about relationships, and others like Aaron decidedly not. In addition to gut-level empathy, socially intelligent people demonstrate such traits as “attunement.” Attunement is listening—but really listening, with full attention. (Try it. It's hard.) Another trait is “synchrony,” which means interacting effortlessly without words. You often see this in couples who have been together forever. Socially intelligent \ people also--this is important--demonstrate concern; they care about others’ needs and act in caring ways. Concern is essential to Goleman’s model of social intelligence, because it rules out clever grifters and evil social geniuses.

The notion of social intelligence is not new, as Goleman is quick to concede. Indeed, he credits Edward Thorndike, the Columbia University psychologist who in the 1920s proposed a similar concept in a popular magazine article. Thorndike’s theory never gained traction, however, because it was impossible to prove that social intelligence was anything more that general intelligence, or IQ, applied to relationships. So the idea withered and disappeared.

Goleman believes it’s time to resurrect Thorndike’s basic concept, with important scientific embellishments. Dramatic advances in neuroscience over the last many decades have made it finally possible to locate skills like empathy and synchrony in the brain’s neurons and biochemistry, and to show that social smarts are indeed a unique form of intelligence--unrelated to, say, a talent for trigonometry. One major advance in psychology, for example, is the idea of the brain as a dual processor, with deliberate, logical powers (what Goleman calls the brain’s “high road”) located in one neural region; and rapid, intuitive powers (the “low road”) in another. Where traditional IQ has entirely to do with formal “high road” processing, many of the building blocks of social intelligence are of the intuitive variety, taking place at breakneck speed outside of language and awareness.

Consider just one example of such sizzling brain work: our remarkable ability to detect emotions like fear and anger and kindness in people’s faces almost instantaneously. Goleman describes the massive “spindle cells” that make the brain capable of such snap judgments. Spindle cells are a relatively new discovery, and we appear to be the only mammals who have them. They are rich in neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine and vasopressin—chemicals that are crucial to bonding with others, and to moods, pleasure, and love. Mirror neurons are another recent discovery that bolsters the idea of a discrete and potent social intelligence, orchestrated in our axons and synapses. Such advances in “social neuroscience” lie at the core of Goleman’s insightful analysis of social intelligence.

As with IQ, social intelligence forms a bell curve, with most of us clustered in the large, average center, and fewer and fewer at the extremes. At one extreme are people whose low road brain is disabled, and whose lives are purely rational and deliberate. At the other extreme are people who can’t read a roadmap, but who have extraordinary empathy and sensitivity to others’ needs. (In a perfect world these people end up working at the DMV.) In the vast majority of us, though, the brain’s high and low roads are acting in neurological concert, creating a mix of deliberate decisionmaking and automatic, effortless behavior.

Sometime the mix is optimal, but oftentimes it’s not. Our impulsive brain sometimes rules where we should be more thoughtful, or we second-guess our emotional brain’s best snap judgments. The results can range from unhappy marriages to corrosive racism, even genocide. Goleman’s ultimate goal--beyond the scope of this
volume--is to hone the social skills of those of us not in the genius range. Since the publication of Emotional Intelligence, a number of schools have instituted curricula to train students in such skills as empathy, self-awareness and self-management, with demonstrable success in reducing problem behaviors like bullying and harassment. The same kind of training could presumably be designed for social intelligence as well.

I want to call this book revolutionary, but it's more like profoundly obvious. We all know the mystery of real rapport, and body memories, and what it means to be in or out of sync. Such connection goes on all the time. What’s novel here is the accumulating and convincing evidence that our brains have been deep-wired over eons for such "I-you" connections. Even without knowing it, we are making intimate brain-to-brain linkups with another, connections that literally leave two brains altered, anatomically and chemically. But Aaron obviously had it wrong: You can't get close by talking close. Real social intelligence has more to do with listening close.

For more insights into the quirks of human nature, visit the Association for Psychological Science website at

posted by Wray Herbert @ 10:49 AM


At 12:41 AM , Blogger Multileveler said...

Goleman is not a scientist. His "research" fails to meet minimally acceptable standards. Shame on APS for giving him needless publicity. What's next, phrenology?

At 8:40 PM , Blogger avocadoinparadise said...

What an interesting post. Kind of long-winded, as professors tend to be... Just kidding--it was great. The half that I read before getting bored was great! :)

At 12:52 AM , Blogger cronkite said...

Can you shed some light on the brain's low road attachments say in a romantic context vs. the brain's high road attraction? Cultures in arranged marriages often do not have that initial chemical attraction which creates an instant spark. Men rely on the instant sight and attraction to pique interest in romance with a woman before engaging in the brain's high road aspects of bonding and attraction. What happens if the chemical attraction is lacking but all the other elements of attraction exists between a couple?

At 1:11 PM , Blogger Maggie said...

I wonder how this could be applied to individuals with ASD, especially Aspberger's Syndrome?

At 6:13 PM , Blogger Kathleen said...

Multileveler said...:
"Goleman is not a scientist. His "research" fails to meet minimally acceptable standards. Shame on APS for giving him needless publicity. What's next, phrenology?"

Specific examples of research please?

At 2:18 PM , Blogger Alan said...

Yeah... Multileveler, you're not exactly supporting your argument with scientifically falsifiable examples yourself...

Sounds like something that's worth thinking about, even if some of the precise science might be dodgy. Social neuroscience is pretty new, got to start somewhere.

At 1:15 PM , Blogger John said...

Hi, those who have commented did not support with their own research findings. Goleman's book is worth buying; all for connectedness. I intend to use his ideas for inclusive education for people with disabilities. The argument is, unless people are wired and connected, marginalised citizens like those with disabilities will always lose out...can someone help me with more ideas about this..Pacific Islander, New Zealand

At 9:26 PM , Blogger grasshopper said...

I agree with Mr. Goleman's statement that such neurological connection is the foundation of primal empathy, and that without empathy there would be no social intelligence. I know more than one person with a genius IQ and a total lack of social awareness. More often than not it is the "low road dominant" individuals who possess the greatest ability to relate to others on a social level and really feel what others are feeling. I don't believe that one intelligence is above the other, they're just different.