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the default mode: sociality, distraction, and concentration

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From Julian Baggini’s essay / review on “sociality” in today’s Financial Times. Here, in particular, he’s discussing Matthew Lieberman’s book Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect.

Lieberman’s task is in some ways the most straightforward. His aim in Social is to impress upon us just how much we have learnt in recent years about the wiring of our brains. Social thinking is so fundamental that it fills our consciousness whenever we switch off from any pressing task. This “default mode network” activity “precedes any conscious interest in the social world”, having been detected in babies as young as two days.

Most neuroscientists believe we have a dedicated system for social reasoning, quite different to the one that is used for non-social thinking. What’s more, when one system is on, the other turns off. Lieberman explains how the social system fulfils three core tasks. First, it must make connections with others, which involves feeling social pains and pleasures, such as those of rejection or belonging. Second, it must develop mind-reading skills, in order to know what others are thinking, so as to predict their behaviour and act appropriately. Finally, it must use these abilities to harmonise with others, so as to thrive safely in the social world.

This notion –  that we have two parallel systems, one for the non-social thinking involved in dealing with “pressing tasks” and another “default mode” that inherently angled towards the social – is an interesting one. And it’s one that seems intuitively true, given how incredibly easy it is to slip from concentrated hard work to checking in on what one’s friends (real and “only electronic”) are saying on social media networks and the like. Of course, it doesn’t even take an online connection to feel the gravitational pull of the social (or even that particularly intense form of the social known as the “sexual”) when we are hard at work on something that requires fixed attention. (See, for instance, Inigo Thomas’s recent LRB piece on the British Library pick up scene – he’s basically written down what everyone chatters about when on the topic of the BL). 

But what I’m wondering about here is not so much the default social mode (which I’m convinced exists) but the other mode, the mode of that runs when completing the “pressing task” – the mental state that we are in when we successfully refuse ourselves yet another check of our email accounts or twitter scrolls. I’m working from a review here, so Lieberman might have it completely differently in his book, but isn’t there also a complex “sociality” to the ostensibly non-social forms of concentrated attention?

In my own work, for instance, which consists mainly of writing, preparing to teach, and marking students’ work, there’s always a implicit, virtual conversation going on as I compose or correct with the readers or audiences that I am planning or at least hoping to communicate with. Of course, the forms of work that require my concentration may be more social that what others have to accomplish – an accountant or an engineer isn’t necessarily expecting to deliver the fruits of her spreadsheet calculations or CAD diagrams to a lecture hall full of people. But even then – and even when I have to devote myself to the calculation of student marks or the tedious estimation of MA admissions returns – isn’t there a deeper, more cryptic sociality involved in the completion of these seemingly inherently solitary tasks. After all, without a sense of the students who are awaiting the marks, my boss who expects me to get the numbers right and on time, the university superstructure that expects students to graduate with full transcripts and seminar rooms next year that are full of students, would I ever even begin to get these (often excruciatingly boring) things done?

Freud coined a term for the deepest, darkest, and most hardwired of the secret interlocutors that converse  (if “converse” is the word, rather than “cajole”, “chastise,” etc) with us as we complete our daily tasks – or engage in any aspect of our quotidian behaviour. He called it the “superego,” that aspect of our psychologies which takes the shape of an internalized, virtual version of authority figures – first parents, later other figures like teachers or religious leaders – and with whom we negotiate constantly. As he has it in The Ego and the Id:

The super-ego retains the character of the father, while the more powerful the Oedipus complex was and the more rapidly it succumbed to repression (under the influence of authority, religious teaching, schooling and reading), the stricter will be the domination of the super-ego over the ego later on—in the form of conscience or perhaps of an unconscious sense of guilt.

In other words, I agree with Lieberman’s thesis about the inherent sociability of human thought and work. But – again conceding that I haven’t read his actual book, only the review – I wonder whether the “default mode” isn’t even more default than he’s making it there. I wonder, in short, if  it isn’t when when we’re most alone, when we’re as concentrated and “unplugged” as we can be, that the voice of the other – even if it comes from nowhere but within our own minds – shouts at us the loudest.

Written by adswithoutproducts

January 4, 2014 at 12:33 pm

Posted in distraction, sociality

One Response

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  1. By the way – and I’m hesitant to mention this as I don’t fully understand the economics of it, how / whether it benefits the author or not, etc – but I just bought Lieberman’s book for £1.89 on the UK Kindle store. So if you’re interested, it right now costs less than the newspaper in which I read the review of it.

    adswithoutproducts

    January 4, 2014 at 12:46 pm


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