drghirlanda

Neuroscience, evolution, and culture

Talking about yourself feels better if others are listening: Why?

Diana Tamir and Jason Mitchell of the Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience Lab at Harvard have just published a paper showing that people find it rewarding to talk about themselves, especially if others are listening (summarized here). Although, put it that way, you may or may not find the result  astonishing, it touches upon an important issue in our understanding of ourselves: the difference between proximate and ultimate causes. Konrad Lorenz explained this difference in the fewest words when he said: the ultimate cause of a car is to travel, the proximate cause is the engine. That is, the ultimate cause is the function, and the proximate is the mechanism that achieves it.

Tamir and Mitchell show that brain areas that respond to reward (food, sex, money, etc.) are also activated when answering questions about oneself, more than when answering questions about Barack Obama (chosen perhaps for his interesting opinions, perhaps because he is familiar to everyone) or about dry facts. And knowing that a friend or relative would read your answer activated the reward areas even more. This, they argue, is the proximate cause of our obsession with talking about ourselves: it activates the reward areas of our brain.

The authors have been careful in validating their results conducting not one, but four distinct experiments. I will just mention that the participants were sure to know the answer to questions about themselves, but not to the other questions. So the reward they felt could reflect the anticipation of knowing the answer rather than the self-referential aspect of the question (we know the same brain areas respond to anticipated reward). After all, we are rewarded all our lives for knowing the answer to questions. But this is not my main point.

My main point is about the ultimate reason why we feel rewarding to talk to others (especially if they listen). In genetic evolution the only ultimate cause is natural selection. Things happen because they make organisms survive and reproduce. It is not hard to imagine potential benefits of sharing your thoughts with others: exchanging knowledge, strengthening social bonds, and so on. But human behavior has another ultimate cause: cultural evolution. What drives cultural evolution is imperfectly understood, but one way to think about it is to ask what are the `magical ingredients’ that make ideas popular. One such ingredient is, rather obviously, that the idea should be able to spread. Other things being equal, ideas that spread faster, convincing person after person to adopt them, will become more popular than slow-spreading ideas. And what is the best way to spread ideas? To talk about them! If you like talking to others about your ideas, these will have a good chance of spreading, and among the ideas you spread there will be those that make you like talking to others. Simplifying a bit, if you think `talking to others is cool,’ then you will say, among other things, `talking to others is cool,’ and others may be convinced of it and start talking to others, furthering the spread of the `talking to others is cool’ idea. If this sounds like a tongue twister, it is because cultural evolution is full of self-referential loops in the dynamics of ideas (one example, and another).

Thus we may like to talk about ourselves because of the dynamics of ideas, rather than because this tendency has been built into us by genetic evolution. Can we distinguish between the two hypotheses? Not yet, I believe, and the main reason is that neither evolutionary psychology nor cultural evolutionary theory (I don’t even have a Wikipedia link for that, but you can look here) have formulated precise predictions about how and when ideas should or should not be shared. But adapting Tamir and Mitchell’s experimental setup to test such hypotheses should be easy. So come on, theoreticians, give us a hypothesis to test!

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