Remarkably, over the last 50 years, opportunities for children to play freely have declined continuously and dramatically in the United States and other developed nations; and that decline continues, with serious negative consequences for children’s physical, mental, and social development.
There is mounting research suggesting a correlation between the decline of free play and socializing in developed nations and the rise of depression, suicide, feelings of helplessness, and narcissism in children, teens, and young adults.
For example, Lieberman explains that middle school education could be dramatically improved by tapping the brain’s social potential. The book notes that U.S. students’ interest in school tends to wane when they reach the seventh and eighth grades — an age when humans become extremely social.
“But our school system says to turn off that social brain,” Lieberman said. “We typically don’t teach history by asking what Napoleon was thinking; we teach about territorial boundaries and make it as non-social as possible. Too often we take away what makes information learnable and memorable and emphasize chronology while leaving out the motivations.
“Eighth graders’ brains want to understand the social world and the minds of other people. We can tap into what middle school students are biologically predisposed to learn, and we can do this to improve instruction in history and English, and even math and science.”
Research also suggests that students are more likely to remember information when they take it in socially. Schools could apply that lesson by having older students tutor younger ones.
“If you have an eighth grader teach a sixth grader, the eighth grader’s motivation is social: to help this other student and not embarrass himself,” Lieberman said. “Getting everyone to be both teacher and learner would create enthusiasm for learning.”
In the book, Lieberman also suggests that business leaders might benefit from understanding people’s social motivations. Studies by other researchers have shown that feeling liked and respected in the workplace activate the brain’s reward system in the same way that financial compensation does–and that social rewards might be at least as effective as money in motivating workers.
And a study by Lieberman demonstrated that people were usually willing to return money that had been given to them if it meant that others would write kind words about them.
The book also describes a study of 60,000 leaders which found that less than 5 percent excel at both achieving important results and building social relationships. “Not many people effectively combine the two,” Lieberman said.
“Social” also gives real-life context for research by Lieberman and colleagues that used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to show that neural mechanisms make us profoundly social beings.
The importance of social connection is so strong, he writes, that when we are rejected or experience other social “pain,” our brains “hurt” in the same way they do when we feel physical pain.
“Social and physical pain are more similar than we imagine,” Lieberman said. “We don’t expect someone with a broken leg to ‘just get over it.’ Yet when it comes to the pain of social loss, this is a common — and mistaken — response.”
Our social nature is so powerful that it even may dictate how effective we are in developing new innovations and producing major societal changes. “We’re wired to see things and think, ‘How can I use this to help other people that I know?’” Lieberman said. “I can have the most brilliant idea for an invention, but if I can’t convey that to other people in a way that they’ll help me build it and market it to other people, it’s just an idea in my head. If we’re not socially connected, even great ideas wither.”