8 Lessons Neuroscience Can Teach Us About Teams

8 Lessons Neuroscience Can Teach Us About Teams

By | June 11, 2019

Great Teams Start with a Balanced Breakfast (and other neurohacks)

“Human beings are fundamentally social – more than any other animal species on the planet, our own destinies are linked to each other. We have this amazing capacity and need to come together in groups to do things that we couldn’t do on our own,” said Michael Platt, Ph.D., at the outset of his keynote presentation at the Conference Board Team Effectiveness Pre-Conference Workshop, designed and presented by AIIR.

Dr. Platt is a renowned professor of neuroscience, psychology, and marketing and the founding faculty director of the Wharton Neuroscience Initiative at the University of Pennsylvania, and AIIR partner. The Wharton Neuroscience Initiative is an ambitious cross-disciplinary undertaking that seeks advances in neuroscience to improve business, drive new discoveries, and enhance the education of future leaders. AIIR announced its partnership with the Wharton Neuroscience Initiative in December of last year.

Dr. Platt went on to give a brilliant 45-minute lecture, during which he performed a series of experiments with the audience. Here are the eight key takeaways from his talk. You can also read the full transcript below.

1. Your social brain network needs exercise (13:45)

The denser and better functioning the grey matter that makes up a person’s social brain network, the more capable they are of forming and maintaining social connections. And, primate studies have shown that interaction with others can strengthen the social brain network in adults. Conversely, isolation weakens the social brain network.

2. Attention is key to connecting (17:00)

And, you can’t pay attention to others while attending to your phone. The social brain network evolved to use nonverbal cues to make critical decisions about the people around us. “If you have your phone out under the table, you are depriving your social brain of the information it needs to get along with others.”

3. Power shapes the way we relate to others (20:00)

Human beings are hard-wired to empathize with other people, and even inanimate objects, if we can put ourselves in their shoes. Perceived power reduces the activity in the social brain network, making individuals in positions of power less capable of empathizing with others.

4. Hard-wired biases shape the way we relate to others (28:30)

Even we want to empathize with people from other ethnic groups, our brains have been hard-wired by evolution to empathize only with people who look similar to us. Research has shown that our biases can be reduced or eliminated, but it takes thoughtful effort.

5. Being on the same team rescues empathy from ethnic divisions (33:19)

Even small indicators of team cohesion (sports fans wearing team colors, for example), are enough to overcome our hard-wired biases and allow us to empathize with others.

6. Strong relationships synchronize physiology (36:00)

When people work together, studies have shown that activity in their social brain network, and even their heartbeats, synchronize.

7. Touch and prolonged eye contact increase oxytocin production (41:00)

Human touched and prolonged eye contact has been shown to produce a surge of Oxytocin, a powerful hormone, and neurotransmitter that plays a role in empathy, generosity, trust, social bonding and the functioning of the social brain network. Even when that eye contact is with a dog.

8. A balanced breakfast is essential to team functioning (44:30)

The chemicals that regulate the social brain network are made from amino acids obtained through our diet. Researchers have shown that a breakfast high in processed carbohydrates reduces the production of dopamine in the brain, making individuals in the study more aggressive, more likely to reject fair offers during negotiation, and less able to empathize with others.

Hungry for more? You can read about our partnership with the Wharton Neuroscience Initiative, or read the full transcript of Dr. Platt’s talk below.

Read the Full Transcript:

It’s a real pleasure to be here, and it’s a real pleasure to be a partner with AIIR. And it’s been great getting to know Jonathan and the team. And it’s been great being here today, when I wasn’t fussing around in the back with equipment problems, seeing how much you all care and how much thought you’re putting into your own work. And so, that’s really inspiring to me.

We have a little bit of a self-control test, so, hopefully, nobody ate the jelly beans. If you did, you’re doomed to a life of failure, and you’ll never reach your pique potential.

So today I’m going to talk about the science of human connection with some implications for coaching and management. But I think that’s where I will leave it to you. So I will give you some of the we’re learning about the ways in which our brains allow us to connect with other people, essentially what makes each of us tick the way we do, what makes some people tick differently from others. And, in particular, for this application, how do we get people to tick together a little bit more effectively? So we’re going to be looking under the hood today.

And we’ll start kind of where — I think Tomas might have touched on this, but one of the big data people analytics kind of survey approaches to try and understand what makes a good manager, what makes a good leader. So Google’s Oxygen project and grant’s been a part of this. It’s 10 years in the making. And they — based on lots and lots of data on surveys, what employees said makes a good manager, they basically came to a bunch of — there are sort of eight different factors. But the key to all these is strong social skills; the ability to relate to others, the ability to communicate effectively. And that perhaps shouldn’t be surprising, because really as human beings, we’re all about being social.

So more than really any other animal species on the planet, our own destinies are linked to each other. So we have this amazing capacity and need to come together in groups to do things that we couldn’t do on our own, like these guys putting up the new Comcast building in Philadelphia. That’s a southeast Pennsylvania joke. This is Amish people raised in a barn. But it illustrates a point; cooperation, connection, is key to human existence. And we now know from lots of work in medicine that people who have stronger connections with others live longer, healthier, happier lives. They also make more money.  Okay? So this is a key feature of the human adapted toolkit.

And if we look at the flipside of that, right, we’re now in the middle of what’s been called the epidemic of loneliness; something like more than 50 percent of people, especially young people, endorse the statement that they have felt really, really lonely in the past year. And we know that those feelings of loneliness are associated with physical pain. Okay? They actually feel physical pain. And this is associated with years off your lifespan. Okay? It’s like taking up smoking, being lonely. This is a terrible thing. It really illustrates the fact that how important social connection is to us as human beings.

And if we look even further at disorders, right, in which social connection is impaired, like autism or schizophrenia, right, you can really, really appreciate how important our ability to connect is. Now, this is so deeply wired into us. We’re really wired to connect with others, that we can’t — most of us can’t help but find social information rewarding and attention-grabbing, so advertisers have clued into this a long time ago, over 100 years ago. If you put attractive or high-status people, celebrities, you just picture them next to a product, and people are more likely to buy it. Okay. That’s kinda weird.  Right? It has no impact on the effectiveness of the product or its utility for you other than the fact that it happens to be sitting next to somebody, right, who’s attractive or who’s very famous.

And, in fact, this is so deeply wired into us, it’s a part of our heritage as primates. And so, we have studied non-human primates. Monkeys actually share the exact same fascination we do with social imagery.  And we discovered that monkeys find it rewarding. They’ll give up juice, they’ll pay juice to see monkey celebrities and sexy monkeys, okay. And if you follow the logic, it should be clear that if that’s true, we should be able to advertise to monkeys as well.

And so, we ran an experiment back when I was at Duke — actually an undergrad led this — and we just did a social advertising campaign. Monkeys watched TV for about an hour a day, and they would see certain pictures, like this is a sexy female monkey from behind. Monkeys tell us that. I’m not telling you that. And if you put it next to Adidas, okay, so this should kind of rub off some high value on the Adidas logo. But — and you can’t see it here. There’s a — sorry. There’s a scrambled version of that. Next to Nike, we did high status monkeys. Next to Acura, you know, low status, next to Pizza Hut, et cetera. And then we just gave the monkeys choices between those brands.

Between those logos, there’s no impact on the reward they get. They get food no matter what.  And they develop very strong preference for the brands that were advertised by sexy or powerful high-status monkeys. Okay? Does that sound familiar?

It’s pretty remarkable. Okay. We’ve been talking about the fact that relationships are key to business. They’re really key to effective working teams. And to illustrate that principle a little bit more directly from my own experience. When I was a kid growing up. I was 13 years old, 1980 Olympics. At that time, Olympic teams were supposed to be amateurs. Okay. And that was certainly true in the U.S. There were other teams, like the Soviet Men’s Hockey team. They were really professionals. They were the best team in the world. They had the best athletes. They trained together all year round. They were exceptionally paid. And when the time came for the Olympics, when had to put together a team, right, and out of nowhere out of a bunch of college kids.

And so, the U.S. Olympic Committee hired this guy, Herb Books. I don’t know if you’ve seen the movie, Miracle on Ice. But when Herb was basically trained as a psychologist, and he used Myers-Briggs, you know, as problematic as that is, to try to psychologically profile potential players. And he also took players who had played together on the same team, so they had some degree of trust and non-verbal working communication with each other. And long story short, the U.S. Men’s Team goes out and beats the Soviet Union and takes the gold medal.  They weren’t the better athletes. They weren’t the better hockey players, but they were the better team. All right. They worked better together.

So how are we supposed to actually go ahead and understand what makes a good team player? What makes a person effective at working with others and communicating with others? Traditionally, the approach has been to use surveys, psychometric instruments. Ask people questions. On a scale of 1 to 10 how social are you? On a scale of 1 to 10, how much empathy do you have? Right? And we know that surveys like this, asking people questions is limited, because we only have access to a very small sliver of the chatter of the 80 to 100 billion neurons that are active in our own brains. Right? Most of that does not raise to the level of consciousness that we can actually express. And even if it does, we’re not so ready to tell you the truth about it, right?  So people can game surveys. They can game questionnaires. Okay? Or their responses can be biased on what they think you want.

So if we want to do a better job, we need to develop some more effective tools. And so, my proposition to you is to go beyond psychology. Let’s go to neuroscience. Let’s look at the source of all of that information, right, the three and a half pounds of meat and fat between you ears. That’s what it really is. This is the source of every thought that you ever had, every connection you’ve ever made with another individual, every memory, everything you ever learned.  This is not trivial. Okay.

So there are 80 to 100 billion neurons in your brain making about a hundred trillion connections with each other. Okay. So this is the most complex device in the known universe. And I think many of my colleagues at Penn and elsewhere, if I were to say, “Oh, I’m going to tell you how we can use neuroscience to make your job better — make you more effective at your job.” They’d say that’s crazy. You can’t do that. We can’t even understand how a cubic millimeter of your retina at the back of your eye senses light. And I would say that’s true if you’re trying to understand every single biochemical movement and molecule, et cetera. We don’t have an understanding at that level that I can relate to you that would help you to help teams be more effective.

But over the last 20 years, advances in neuroscience, in particular new non-invasive technologies that allow us to see the human brain in action while it’s doing its job has allowed us to uncover the kind of — and sketch out the basic circuitry that’s involved.  Right? And so, this has put us in a position to really say this is what makes this circuitry more effective, more potent, and this is how you can put this into practice. Now in order to do that, you have to understand something about the technology that’s available. So the kind of gold standard would actually be to listen to these neurons directly, these cells. And to do that, you have to put a probe in your brain. Okay? How many people want to have that done right now? Elon Musk has sought it. So he’s really into that.

I’d rather take a survey.

You’d rather take a survey. So this is not that this is the gold standard, but it’s not very useful in your daily practice. Right? And so, for that reason, you would turn to other kinds of technology that are non-invasive, like brain imagine. Most of you, if you have any kind of experience with neuroscience. It’s going to be pretty pictures of lights on a brain. This is fantastic. This allows tests, hypothesis about — and identify the key players and the circuits. But there are some limitations of this as well. Because brain imaging, let’s face it, is super expensive. You’ve got to go to an academic medical center, costs $1,000 an hour to run — to get data on an individual.

Right? You can’t put one on you head and walk around as a member of a team, a least not right now. And so, that means we have to turn to other kinds of more scalable technologies, like electroencephalograms, EEG, you put electrodes on the outside of the scalp, really easy, and a guy like me, more difficult than some of the other people who continue to have hair on their heads. But this gives you a kind of real-time running data on kind of what your brain is doing and can give us insights into key process related to attention and arousal and reward and decision-making, and, in particular social connection. We can also then look at other kinds of technologies that perhaps might at first glance not seem to tell us much about what’s going on in the brain. So, for example, eye tracking is one of the most compelling and useful techniques in neuroscience as applied to business. And that’s because you can always see really clearly about the width of your thumb at arm’s-length, and so we have to move our eyes around to gather information to guide our behavior.

Most of us are completely unaware of that when it’s happening, because our brain stitches it together in a seamless way. But where we’re looking then portrays what’s going on in our head. What processes are intervening between what we see and what we do. And you get a little bit of a freebie with eye tracking, because you get a measure the size of the pupil, and the size of the pupil is related to a couple of really important chemicals in your brain, namely dopamine, which is associated with reward and norepinephrine, which is the brain’s adrenaline chemical, which, as we know, is intimately tied to how exploratory you might be or how creative you might be at that moment.

And we can even turn to other technologies, which at first glance seem to have nothing to do with the brain. Okay, which we’ll see in a minute, hopefully, in about half an hour, if this works out, like heart rate. So our heart rates. We’re all collecting data on our heart rates right now through wearable technology; Fitbits, Apple watches, et cetera. And heart rate tells you something about your activity level and how fit you are. But it turns out that heart rate is also shaped by what you’re thinking. So if you’re more aroused, right, if you are more anxious, your heart rate goes up. And as I’ll show you, if you measure heart rate in two or more people simultaneously, they will show synchrony in their heart rates. That is a function of how much trust they have with each other and how well they are working together. And this is an extraordinary discovery that we don’t understand a lot of the basic mechanics of, but we can apply it in the here and now.

With that introduction underway, let’s go back and think about how we connect with others. And really a major discovery in the last 15 years in neuroscience is that we have a circuit in our brains, which is often called the social brain network which is specialized to manage our connections with others. And it begins with an appreciation of sensory decoding at the back of the brain of who’s around us. Are you somebody familiar or not? What’s your identity? Tells us something about your emotional state by reading your facial expressions and your movements. And from there, information is basically piped to two parts of the brain that are really important for working with others. One is involved in empathy. That is understanding the internal emotional experience of another individual. And the other set of brain areas in involved in something we call theory of mind or mentalizing. And that is forming a model in your head of what’s going on in somebody else’s head at a cognitive level. Are they somebody who’s trustworthy? Right Are they going to help me? Right? Do they see — do they have the same goals as I do?

Okay? And those two processes come together and ultimately guide behavior. And so, we’re going to now take a tour through these various steps in the function of the social brain network. And so, as a first exercise, now you guys have been doing this all day, but I’m just going to ask you for 30 seconds to mingle with each other, the people at your table, if you haven’t talk to them. Go ahead. Say hello. Tell each other this is a really great talk. This is crappy talk. Whatever.

[Audience speaking amongst each other.]

I know it’s going to get you guys to stop now. All right? You can’t help it. It’s rewarding.  Okay. Let’s come back. Attention up front again. I know it’s really, really hard. You become good friends today. So what you were just doing there was exercising your social brain network. And we now know that differences between people in the health and integrity of their social brain network, literally how big it is and how well-wired it is, that predicts the number and depth of friends that you actually have. Okay. In the real world and at least 10 years ago it predicted how many friends you had online. Now we know that that whole system is corrupt and there are bots and all kinds of things going on.

But this is something that’s really extraordinary. Right. So if you have a better functioning social brain network, you’re going to have a better functioning real human social network.

Now that raises a big question. Is this something you can change or is it destiny? So we know in the limit, in terms of pathology that people who are born with certain disorders are going to have differences in their social brain network, which limits or impairs their ability to connect with others. But we now know that the social brain network is like a muscle, okay. And the more you use it, the bigger and healthier and stronger it gets. And the critical studies can’t be done in humans, but they’ve been done in monkeys. Monkeys basically have the same social brain network in their heads that they depend on to make connections with others. And in a study that was done at Oxford — now there’s been several studies, and, in fact, we’ve replicated one of them — if you take monkeys who are living alone, and you scan their brains to measure the size and integrity of their social brain network, now you put them into different size groups. Some monkeys have to learn how to live with one other monkey, some four, some seven. This has now been expanded up to something like 32.

And you say live together, get along, find a way to be friends for the next there months. Now you bring them back in, you scan their brains, and what you find is that this is literally the thickness of the grey matter in the key part of the social brain network scales linearly with how many monkeys you had to figure out how to get alone with.

And these are not baby monkeys. These are adult monkeys. So we’re seeing strong brain plasticity. It’s basically use or lose it. The social brain network is like a muscle, so one take-home message from this is that at the end of a long week, how do you — what do you do next? What do you do to relax? You go sit at home and binge watch your favorite TV show on Netflix? If you do, you might be depriving your social brain network of an ability to go out and exercise. So I always say to people even though you’re not at work, get out, go to the farmer’s market, go play volleyball, whatever it is that — company picnic — interact with people and when you’re doing that, you’re building your social brain and when you come back to work on Monday, you’re going to be more effective. Maybe not from that weekend’s worth of work, but this is something you can — exercise is something you can do to make yourself more effective.

So now I’m going to turn to the next kind of exercise. And now we’re going to get to the jellybeans. So each of you has a tub in front of you, either green top or yellow top. Okay, and this is non-verbal exercise. I’m going to say the people with the green — and this is just random. People with the green tops, select a jellybean and eat it. And the other people are going to go second. So people with the green tops, go ahead and choose one. Everybody try one? Everybody try one?  I’m not — well, we’ll go over that later.

Okay. Did all the green top try them? Okay. Now yellow tops you go. Did everybody try one?


Okay. So in the first group, the green group, how many people got a bad tasting jellybean? Okay. Good. That’s great. It should be half. There shouldn’t be any bias. Now about the second group? Did anybody get a bad tasting jellybean?  Okay, you guys need some work. So the key here is attention. So all the information you would need to understand what’s the good tasting jellybean or the bad tasting jellybean is provided by your partner who are consuming them. If they eat something that taste bad, they’re going to make a universal sign of bitterness. It’s found across all animals. Okay? And it’s a signal that we spontaneously pick up on, and we learn from that. We know what’s good and what’s bad to eat.

Monkeys never fail this test. Okay? I’ve given monkeys this test. They don’t fail it. But you guys, again, you need some work. And I think part of the problem is that what you pay attention to, what you’re looking at is gating the information that goes into the social brain network. If you’re not looking — if your eyes are closed, it has not data to work on. So if you guys spend a lot of your time like this; if you got your phone, you got your device out under the table, you think you’re hiding it from people, but you’re king of looking down, you’re not getting the data. You are depriving your social brain of the information it needs, that it evolved to use to make estimates of other people to understand their experience and to get along with them. So pay attention to everybody, please.

Now I’m going to show you a couple of videos. They’re going to take us on this sort of next journey from attention and perception to another feature of human social and cognitive.

Some of you may have seen this first video by Heider and Simmel. It was made in the 1940s. Has anybody seen this? If you’re a psychologist — you have training in psychology you’ve probably seen it. I’m just going to ask you to watch the video. I may need to turn down the lights on the next couple of videos. And just watch it, and then I’ll ask you what you see. There we go.

Did anybody see a story there? A social narrative? Right? It’s amazing, right? We can’t help it. We — our brains are tuned to find social narratives, to find intentions even when none exists. I mean this is just geometry. And yet when you watch something like this, the parts of your social brain that are involved in decoding intentions from the movements of other individuals are actually active. And the more active the social brain is in response to seeing even something abstract, the more likely you are to give to charity or to be prosocial to somebody who needs help. I mean that’s unbelievable to me. It’s amazing.

Okay. Now I’m going to show you another video. It’s going to take us a step further. And I don’t know if there’s — let’s see how we do with the light. Okay, cool.

Many of you feel bad for this lamp. That is because you’re crazy. It has not feelings. And the new one is much better.

So this is a really fabulous commercial. It was actually directed by Spike Jones, so he’s a famous Hollywood director. He does something really remarkable here. Let’s forget the music, which is very helpful.  He creates this sense of empathy, right? You feel really sad for the lamp. And why do you feel sad for the lamp? What’s that?

It’s been replaced.

It’s been replaced for sure. But the other thing that Spike Jones does in this, which is very clever, is to create some perspective-taking.  So he shoots it as if you are kind of in the place of the lamp, right? And this is sort of fundamental. Another fundamental aspect of how we understand other is by taking their perspective. It’s something that emerges early in infancy, somewhere between six months and a year of age. And the first phase of that is looking at someone, like a caregiver, and when she turns and looks at something, you follow her gaze. That is one of the first things — it’s the first identifiable behavioral marker of autism a child who will go on to have difficulties connecting with another individual. Monkeys follow the gaze of other monkeys. So this is really, again, a very fundamental component of how we relate to other people. And what’s really remarkable is we now know that power shapes the way our social brains relate to others and the way that we — or our ability to take perspective of others.

So one of the first studies that I know of that examined this was a purely behavioral study by my colleague, Marie Schweitzer at Wharton and also Adam Galinsky at NYU. And in this study, they asked people basically — they did a bunch of different manipulations, but they asked people to without thinking just write the letter E on their forehead. Okay. And if people were primed to be thinking they were in a position of power, or if they actually were powerful people within their organization, they would end up writing the letter E, so that they could see it themselves, Whereas, if they had been primed to be in a low power position, they would write the letter E, so it would be legible by somebody else. So from that other person’s perspective.  So power is shaping that. And we know now from now there are probably about a half dozen brain imaging studies which show that basically the activity in your social brain network goes down as your perceived status goes up, as your power goes up.

So here’s from one study by my colleague, Emily Faulk at the Annenberg School of Communication as well as Matt Lieberman out at UCLA. And here what’s displayed is for each individual who’s in the study, they rate themselves on a ladder, okay, with 8 being kind of highest rank within their organization. You can see that activity within these parts of the social brain network goes down systematically with increasing believe in your own power or status. And this has now been demonstrated at Dartmouth amongst undergraduates and a few other different studies. So this suggests that when we are high status, when we’re powerful, when there’s a real hierarchy in place, het people at the top tend now to pay attention to anybody else. If you don’t pay attention to somebody else, you’re not going to have any activity in your social brain network. You’re not going to take their perspective. You’re not going to develop empathy. I’m going to emphasize this again. This is so hardwired in, that we find this in monkeys too. So monkeys follow the gaze of other monkeys. They take their perspective. But it’s only the low status monkeys that really do that. They follow everybody’s gaze. They take perspective of everybody, because they’re trying to figure out what’s going on. And high-status monkeys, they don’t care. They only take the perspective of other high-status monkeys.

So this is, again, it’s exactly what we see in people, and it tells us this is a 28 million year old process. It’s in our brains. It’s going to take some real hard work to overcome that.

Okay. So now I’m going to show you — we’re going to move on to the next step in this process of sort of perception and attention, perspective taking, and I’m going to ask you something on how you feel. I’m going to show you a couple of videos, and after I show them to you, I’ll ask you how you felt. So here’s one. Okay. You ready?

Okay. There was some — something expressed here. Here’s another one.  Okay. So how do people feel about that? Not good? Bad? You feel that person’s pain, right? You feel some empathy for them.

So you — it probably did not escape your notice that there were — the two women were from different ethnicities, right? And so, this is a study that was done by a post-doc of mine back when he was a PhD student in China. And he was looking at the — how our brains process information about people from other ethnic groups, other races. And he was capitalizing on the fact that there’s a part of your social brain network kind of right here [indicating] if you were to intersect my two fingers, that’s active not only when we feel pain or pleasure, but when somebody else feels pain or pleasure. And we know that the strength of that activity predicts how likely you would be to help that person.

So in this study, and basically he brought in women and men who were either ethnically Caucasian or ethnically Chinese. And they watched these videos, and then they had their brains scanned. And he asked them, how did you feel? And everybody said I felt really bad for that person. I felt pain. But their brains told a different story. Okay? So here’s this part of the social brain network involved in empathy. Chinese observer watching a Chinese woman’s face apparently pierced with a needle — also by the way nobody was hurt. These are fake needles that go back up into the syringe. So big brain empathy response watching a Caucasian woman’s face pierced with needle. Nothing. Okay. And vice versa for Caucasian observers. Big brain empathy response for Caucasian woman’s face being pieced, but nothing for the Chinese woman.

Okay. This is horrible, right? This is like oh my God what are we going to do with this? Even when we think we feel something, our brains are doing something else. They’re processing that information about another individual in a very different way. And I’m going to tell you that it’s not all bad. It turns out that this is something that can be changed, and it can be changed by what you emphasize. If I use your finger to touch her nose, synchronously as your feeling touching on your own nose, your brain is trying to put this together. I feel like I’m touching my nose, but my arm’s out here. So how does your — what does your brain interpret that as? Well, my nose must have grown out to here. So people start to feel their nose growing out until it’s like the length of their arm. It’s really bizarre, called the Pinocchio Illusion.

Let’s see — so that’s our brain creating a sense of ourself, body body in space. And you can now start to play tricks on your brain. So there’s another version of this called the rubber arm illusion. You put a rubber arm on the table, you put your arm under the table or next to it. You stroke your arm. Somebody strokes your arm, while you’re seeing one of these rubber arms stroked, and you start to feel like it’s your arm. Like if somebody brings out a hammer like they’re going to hit it,  you shriek. If you make the rubber arm have a different skin tone from your own, then you start to actually feel differently about people with a different skin color.

You see implicit attitudes go down — implicit racial bias. And then most effective way of doing this is an approach called enfacement, where you sit in front of a — what looks like a mirror, but it’s computer screen, and you have you own face touched with a cotton swab at the same time that you see somebody in the “mirror” their face being touched with a cotton swab. And your brain is trying to put two and two together. Your brain says, “Oh, this is me.” And you begin to kind of see people from other ethnic groups, other races as being more attractive. You show lower implicit bias on implicit bias tests. It’s not clear that this lasts forever. Right? This lasts for the 10 minutes or so of the experiment, but it’s very, very intriguing, because it suggests that there’s something about the way our brains create a sense of identity, right, that could potentially be exploited to create some more inclusiveness amongst people. And that can be done on teams.

So let’s now go back to that empathy question. No brain empathy for somebody from a different ethnic group. However, we know that there are times and places where we come together as people from all different walks of life, different ethnic groups, different socioeconomic classes, different parts of the city, like so here’s a Philadelphia Eagles game at the Link. And everybody’s getting along, and you see all these people with green shirts on. They put on green shirts, and even though they’re all very different, they put on green shirts and now they’re ready to fight people with blue shirts on, the Giants. Okay. This is ridiculous. Why in the world would that happen? And it happened so quickly. It’s because now you’re emphasizing the fact that we’re on a team. Right? And that’s the real key here.  You can do something very, very minimal to emphasize teamwork and shared goals as opposed to the differences between us. And, in fact, my post Doc back, again, for his PhD, showed that basically you bring people into the lab, and you have them put on a red shirt or a blue shirt. So it’s a minimal group type treatment that’s been around in psychology since the 1960s. And then the women in those videos are either wearing a red shirt or a blue shirt. And you tell your participants, oh if the woman is wearing the same shirt as you, you’re going to be on the same team later for some exercise you have to do. And what you find is if the woman’s on the opposite team, you get that same blunting effect; no empathy for somebody from another race. But now they’re on the same team, and that rescues that brain empathy response.

Now your brain is treating that person more like an individual who shares your identity, because now you’re on the same team. So that sort of level the playing field, right. Its put the emphasis on shared features at the expense of the things that are different. And so, I think that take home message from that and something I know that you all do is to try to do things, develop interventions that emphasize what shared goals, shared membership on a team, et cetera.

Okay. So now I want to turn to another demo. And, hopefully, this demo will work, since we spent a lot of time this afternoon trying to make things work. And so, I’m going to need to more victims — volunteers to come up. I’m not going to touch your faces or your noses. I’m going to ask you to put heart rate monitors on. They go on your ear, so I need two people. And with any luck, this will all work. Do I have — you’re one of my victims. Awesome. Oh, awesome. Do you guys know each other?

No, I don’t.

All right. So one of you stand on this side of the table. Okay. I’m just going to clip this on your ear. She’s got a big earring there, but —

And you’re going to come on this side of the table. And if you could flip up the — here. Come on over there. Stand in front of here. Yeah, thanks. And I’m gonna put one on you.  So you got two of you up there. Heart rates. And I’m going to as you to do something you might not have done for a long time.

Let’s Play a Game

Don’t worry. I want you to each start building your own vehicle, a car together.

Build it together?

No, no, no. On your own. Sorry. Build one on your own. Build one on your own. Thank you for pointing that out.

So you can see that they’re not quite aligned. All right. For the most part, although they’re pretty aligned for people who don’t know each other. Now I want you to start building one together without talking.

And so what I see is them coming into stronger alignment. I mean if you — this is something that we wouldn’t just do as a display here. There’s some very high-end analysis you have to do to get the phase trajectory of the two sets of heart rates. This is something that is, to me, like a minor miracle that you can observe this.

I have done this with people from say Special Forces or Seal Team and these are guys whose lives depend on being in sync with each other, and they just go right into perfect alignment. Now, this is the hardest part. I have to as you to sit down and stop playing with Legos, so I can finish the — I know it’s so — once you get started, you get hooked on it, right? Thank you.  No, thank you. That was really awesome.

Strong Relationships Synchronize Physiology

And so, if we could go back. — flip back to the slides. This idea of kind of the harmonic resonance in physiology goes back to some studies — a study, in fact, the earliest that I’m aware of, the study of fire walkers in Spain. This is the kind of ritual that’s performed all over the world. The whole town comes together.  These this big bonding event. They’re walking across hot coals. And in this study, the scientists put heart rate monitors on the first walker as well as people in the crowd. And everybody’s super-excited, the crowd’s kind of going wild. But what the scientists found is that people in the crowd who were the close family and friends of the firewalkers, they’re heart rates went up and down in almost perfect time with the firewalker.

And you didn’t see that in other people in the crowd, despite the fact that everybody is excited. Its very highly arousing. So there’s something, right, about that connection that allows our brains to not only be sensitive to and read out another individual’s state but our own emotional state. Our own heart rates come to alight with this. And this is actually generated by physiological synchrony that happens in the brain. So this is something we’ve been measuring in a — and I can tell you more about this in a variety of different team applications.

A really beautiful study came out about a year and a half ago. In this study, they put wireless EEG monitors on a bunch of students and teachers in classrooms at Stuyvesant High School and then measured synchrony in their brain activity. And when they found was those classrooms that had higher synchrony among students and with the teacher, had better learning outcomes.

Brain synchrony even predicts engagement and learning.

They had more engagement.  They had better retention. And this makes a lot of sense, right, because a learning environment is a social environment. And if you’re paying attention to each other, then your brains should be processing information in a very similar way in real time. And, in fact, they did one more beautiful thing here, which was to try to see what factors might actually predict the degree of synchrony that these classrooms would come into. And it was one thing that really shaped that. And it was the amount of eye contact between students in the five minutes before class. It’s as simple as that.

Now we don’t know if that is an actual driver, right, or that itself is a marker of the fact that they already have a strong connection. This is something we’re really pushing and trying to understand at a very mechanistic level as well as applications. So we’re studying physiological synchrony in sports teams, for example, where the metrics, in terms of performance, are objective and where a 2 percent improvement can be the difference between winning and losing.

But can you turn it up to 11?

I know want to turn to kind of a last bit of section here in terms of things you can do to turn up to 11. If you’re Spinal Tap fan, then hopefully you’ll get the reference.  So how can we improve? How can we maximize, optimize people’s ability to connect with others? And there’s a lot of potential ways. There’s a lot of interest in this molecule. Does anybody know what this molecule is? This is oxytocin.

Hormones like Oxytocin enhance social brain function.

Right? Nine peptide molecule. It’s produced in your hypothalamus, and it’s a very ancient molecule. It’s shared with all vertebrates, all higher organisms on this planet. And oxytocin in mammals, in all of us it’s primary function is to help build a strong bond.

Oxytocin builds bonds between mothers and their babies.

Okay. So oxytocin is released during childbirth. It’s released when you’re nursing. So these are times when your baby would be right on you. And this has a very important role in building that bond between the mother and child. But we also know from work over the last 20 years or so that oxytocin is really important for other — it has been basically cooped by evolution to help build other kinds of bonds between people.

So we know that oxytocin is really important for building trust. We know oxytocin is important for attention to others.  So if you actually snort oxytocin, which is a way to get it into your brain, it gets translocated along cranial nerves up into your brain, then it promotes eye contact. It promotes and increases your ability to read other people’s emotions, and it is currently being explored in probably four dozen different clinical trials as a therapy for improving social functions in disorders like autisms, schizophrenia, social anxiety, et cetera.

And oxytocin is such a part of who we are that we’ve rubbed it off, we’ve selected for this system in other critters that we spend a lot of time with. So it turns out that oxytocin when you make positive eye contact with your dog, oxytocin is released in you and also in your dog, and that is partly responsible for the bond that you form with your dog. And this is another take home that I always say. Say you need to go to work, and you’ve got to be at the top of your game, in terms of ability to connect with others and trust, et cetera, ideally, you’d have five minutes of eye contact with somebody before you go. But if you don’t have somebody there, or you’re a little too anxious, grab a dog, look him in the eye, hopefully, the dog’s been fed. Look him in the eye, and you’re going — it’s pregaming, right? So pregame with your dog, and you’re going to have a higher functioning social brain network, because we’ve shown that, in fact, if you put oxytocin into those spots in the brain that I showed you earlier, it has the same impact as inhaling it.

Social touch releases oxytocin.

And one more word on oxytocin. And this is something that I don’t quite know how to reconcile with kind of the current zeitgeist which is that social touch is also a really, really important part of connecting with others. And it’s mediated by the oxytocin system. It turns out we have sensors in our skin that are specialized for the only thing they’re specialized for is to sense the touch of another human being. They work best at body temperature. Okay. They don’t tell you much about where you’re being touched or what kind of touch it is other than I’m being touched by a human being.  These sensors go right into your brain and they promote the release of oxytocin.

And so, I think it’s not a surprise, especially in sports, you often see a lot of prosocial touch, and it’s really important for those — it’s not just that it feels good, it’s actually releasing a substance in your brain that we know is important, is critical for building strong trust and bonds with other individuals. And the final moment here — and I think we’re miraculously about on time — I want to talk about — there’s a whole bunch of ways in which you can send this thing off track, not turn up to 11, but turn down to 1.

Unfortunately, you can also turn the social brain network down to 1.

And I’m going to end with asking you a question, okay, which is what you had for breakfast today. Anybody want to volunteer what they ate? Come on.

Yogurt. Fiber One bar. Cereal. Fruit. Eggs.

So we have the spectrum from high-carb, cereal, fruit, to high-protein. And it turns out that what you eat has a big impact on the way your brain functions. So it doesn’t just have an impact on the way your body functions but also the way your brain functions. And so, this — what I’m talking about here is a study that was kind of the culmination of two decades of work by colleagues at University College London, who were studying the impact of selectively reducing the amount of certain amino acids in the diet and the impact of that on chemicals in your brain, so all the big chemicals in your brain that are really important for reward and for mood and for learning. So dopamine, serotonin, norepinephrine, all have to be made from amino acids that you get from your diet. And so, after your overnight fast, after you slept for your three, four, six, eight hours, you wake up in the morning, you’re depleted of these amino acids, and so the first thing that you eat in the morning, right, is going to strongly shape the chemicals that are available in your brain. Okay. And so, it turns out that if you give somebody a shake that is low in tryptophan, then you’ll have low serotonin levels in your brain. If you give somebody a shake that’s low in tyrosine, they will have low dopamine levels in their brain.

And in this study, they didn’t just give them a kind of manufactured cocktail, but in fact they just asked people, “What did you eat for breakfast?” From the spectrum from cereal, like Lucky Charms man back there over to eggs and bacon, the full-on American breakfast, and what they found was that people who had a high carb breakfast their brains were low in dopamine.

We are what we eat. High carb breakfasts increase social rejection.

Well, and in this study, they tested the impact of what those low dopamine levels did, and the people who ate a high-carb breakfast were more likely to reject fair offers in negotiation. They were more aggressive, and they’re also impaired in learning. And so, this seems to me like if you’re going to do anything, as if you were an institution, you’re a company, man, I would make sure everybody who’s working there is eating a nice, healthy, well-rounded, breakfast, not binging on Lucky Charms or bagels or whatever else might be out there. And also, I think this has big implications in terms of policy for education for schools, right? Kids who are — if they’re coming to school and having eaten or they’ve eaten only Lucky Charms, is it any wonder that they’re failing all day. Right?

And so with that, I don’t need to read these to you.

So we’ve taken a tour through the importance of social connection for human success, and some of the ways in which our brains are specialized for this and also counted for some of the variations across people.

If you’re interested in these questions and others, we offer at the Wharton Neuroscience Initiative Executive Education.

We have an open enrollment course, for example, in May. We ran it last year to a lot of success. That takes a deep dive over the course of four days. What do you need to know about neuroscience, how do you measure brain function? How do you change it? And then we go through a whole bunch of different applications. A lot of them are on the management side. Okay. So we really take a deep dive. But we also look at marketing, brand strategy, finance, et cetera. And so, if you’re interested, please take a look.

And you can also go to our website, which is sort of a one stop shopping for information about neuroscience and its intersection with business.

So with that, thanks. And thanks for the invitation, Johnathan.

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