How our brain understands things that exist in the real world is a fascinating and complex process.
Take a telephone, for example.
When you just saw that word in print, your brain went right to work translating nine random and abstract symbols (including the same one repeated three times), the letters we use to write “telephone," into a concept that means something to you. And for each of you reading this, the process could be a little different. There’s a very good likelihood you’re picturing a phone. The visual cortex of your brain is supplying you with an image that comes from your real-world experience with phones.
But perhaps you’re thinking of the sound a phone makes, in which case the audio center of your brain has come to life and you’re reimagining the actual sound of a phone.
A recent study from the Max Planck Institute found there’s a hierarchy of understanding that activates in the brain when we think of things, going from the concrete at the lowest levels to the abstract at higher levels. It can all get quite complex -- even for something relatively simple like a phone.
Imagine what a brain must go through to try to understand another person.
Another study from Ruhr University in Bochum, Germany, tried to unpack that question. The research team found, again, that the brain pulls many threads together to try to understand what another person might be going through. It pulls back clues that come through our senses. But, perhaps most importantly, in many cases it attempts to read the other person’s mind. The research team believes it’s this ability that’s central to social understanding. "It enables us to develop an individual understanding of others that goes beyond the here and now," explains researcher Julia Wolf. "This plays a crucial role in building and maintaining long-term relationships."
In both these cases of understanding, our brains rely on our experience in the real world to create an internal realization in our own brains. The richer those experiences are, the more we have to work with when we build those representations in our mind.
This becomes important when we try to understand how we understand each other. The more real-world experience we have with each other, the more successful we will be when it comes to truly getting into someone else’s head. This only comes from sharing the same physical space and giving our brains something to work with. "All strategies have limited reliability; social cognition is only successful by combining them," says study co-researcher Sabrina Coninx.
I have talked before about the danger of substituting a virtual world for a physical one when it comes to truly building social bonds. We just weren’t built to do this. What we get through our social media channels is a mere trickle of input compared to what we would get through a real flesh-and-blood interaction.
Worse still, it’s not even an unbiased trickle. It’s been filtered through an algorithm that is trying to interpret what we might be interested in. At best it is stripped of context. At worst, it can be totally misleading.
Despite these worrying limitations, more and more of us are relying on this very unreliable signal to build our own internal representations of reality, especially those involving other people.
Why is this so dangerous? It’s The negative impact of social media is twofold. First it strips us of the context we need to truly understand each other, and then it creates an isolation of understanding. We become ideologically balkanized.
Balkanization is the process through which those that don’t agree with each other become formally isolated from each other. It was first used to refer to the drawing of boundaries between regions (originally in the Balkan peninsula) that were ethnically, politically or religiously different from each other.
Balkanization increasingly relies on internal representations of the “other,” avoiding real world contact that may challenge those representations. The result is a breakdown of trust and understanding across those borders. And it’s this breakdown of trust we should be worried about.
Our ability to reach across boundaries to establish mutually beneficial connections is a vital component in understanding the progress of humans. In fact, in his book “The Rational Optimist,” Matt Ridley convincingly argues that this ability to trade with others is the foundation that has made homo sapiens dominant on this planet. But, to successfully trade and prosper, we have to trust each other. “As a broad generalisation, the more people trust each other in a society, the more prosperous that society is, and trust growth seems to precede income growth,” Ridley explains.
As I said, balkanization is a massive breakdown of trust. In every single instance in the history of humankind, a breakdown of trust leads to a society that regresses rather than advances. But if we take every opportunity to build trust and break down the borders of balkanization, we prosper.
Neuroeconomist Paul Zak, who has called the neurotransmitter oxytocin the “trust molecule,” says, “A 15% increase in the proportion of people in a country who think others are trustworthy, raises income per person by 1% per year for every year thereafter.”
We evolved to function in a world that was messy, organic and, most importantly, physical. Our social mechanisms work best when we keep bumping into each other, whether we want to or not. Technology might be wonderful at making the world more efficient, but it doesn’t do a very good job at making it more human.