How Does the Brain Manage Socioeconomic Diversity?

Neuroscience techniques paint a picture of pro-social connection in the brain.

Posted Oct 19, 2020 | Reviewed by Lybi Ma

By Nicklas Balboa and Richard D. Glaser, PhD

 Roxanne Panero/Benchmark Communications, Inc. used with permission
Two-brain neuroscience focusses on understanding the neural basis of real-time, dynamic communication.
Source: Roxanne Panero/Benchmark Communications, Inc. used with permission

A recently published study (2020) in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience details the neurobiological mechanisms behind spontaneous conversations between socioeconomically diverse individuals. The experimenters utilized a novel neuroimaging technique, functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS), to uncover the live neural dynamics of face-to-face communication.

The results of the study, Neural processes for live pro-social dialogue between dyads with socioeconomic disparity, “Document that the neurobiological underpinnings of our socialness include functions that endow us with the ability to embrace diversity and assure positive and pro-social outcomes,” says Professor Hirsch. “I think this is an important message for our time.”

Until recently, our understanding of diversity in social settings remained unclear in terms of what mechanisms of our neurobiology are involved during a live conversation. In 2018, the late Judith E. Glaser interviewed Yale Neuroscientist Joy Hirsch, PhD on WE-IQ TV to discuss how the brain behaves when two people engage in conversation.

We learned that as we share information during social interactions our brains evoke responses unique to dyadic, or paired, communication. This Interactive Brain Hypothesis explores the very nature of our social selves. Judith and Joy discussed the preliminary details of this recently published study, which was proposed by one of Professor Hirsch’s students, Olivia Descorbeth. This research on the neuroscience of conversations has direct ties to the real world by uncovering the neural substrates that underly a pro-social conversation between two people of high and low socioeconomic disparity.

As explained by Professor Hirsch, what's thought to occur during conversations between high-disparity pairs, is that the regulatory systems of the frontal lobe are called upon to monitor, detect, and regulate the exchange in order to reach a successful, egalitarian conversation (Hirsch & Glaser 2018).

The variable of socioeconomic disparity was solely determined by education and income, all others factors, like race and ethnicity, average age, and gender were normalized. Participants were recruited from Yale’s ‘on-campus’ population as well as the metropolitan ‘off-campus’ population of New Haven, CT. The results of the study indicated that spontaneous conversations between socioeconomically diverse individuals reflect an up-regulation of activity in the frontal lobe. So what exactly does this mean?

Driven to Connect

“The key to better health is to better understand our brain. By understanding how the brain functions, communicates, and responds to our environment, we can reach our full potentials. The brain does not speak French or English, it speaks neuroscience.” (Glaser 2019).

Our differences are what make us human, however the key to healthy communication is the synchronization of our brains. We are intended to be connected with another brain. Whether faced with a similar or different conversational partner such as that described in the paper, the brain has evolved mechanisms that enable us to synchronize at a neural level, and these synchronizations represent our ability to try find mutual understanding, which can pave the way towards successful, pro-social connections.

However, finding a connection is not always easy, it takes work and consumes our energy. Conflict and disconnection are also inherent parts of our diverse world. Often times when we find it difficult to bridge our own reality gaps, we fall into our more I-centric habits that serve to protect the ego and trigger defensive behaviors.

Ensuring Pro-social Outcomes

In order to overcome these compounding factors, and reach a successful conversation, it is necessary to stop making assumptions and to promote sensitivity towards others’ points of view. You may ask yourself:

  • What am I hung up on?
  • What can I do differently?
  • How can I adjust my thinking to better understand their point of view?

These types of discovery questions appeal to the readily adaptable parts of our brain, which in turn can help manage our individual biases and stereotypes that stand in the way of successful conversations. We must strive to listen to others without judgement and listen to connect. These exercises in Conversational Intelligence can pave the way towards a society that prioritizes connection and bonding over conflict.  

Joy Hirsch, PhD, is the Elizabeth Mears and House Jameson Professor of Psychiatry, Comparative Medicine, and Neuroscience Director, Brain Function Laboratory at the Yale School of Medicine, and is a member of The CreatingWE® Institute's Scientific Advisory Board. 

Nicklas Balboa is a researcher in Conversational Intelligence at The CreatingWE® Institute

Richard D. Glaser, PhD, is the Chairman of The CreatingWE® Institute and a biochemist.

References

References:

Olivia Descorbeth, Xian Zhang, J Adam Noah, Joy Hirsch, Neural processes for live pro-social dialogue between dyads with socioeconomic disparity, Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, Volume 15, Issue 8, October 2020, Pages 875–887, https://doi.org/10.1093/scan/nsaa120

Glaser, J. E., & Hirsch, J. (2018).  Joy Hirsch WE-IQ TV Interview. Retrieved from https://vimeo.com/274248236/1dd3f4b62b

Balboa, N., Glaser, J. E., & Glaser, R. D. (2019). The Neuroscience of Conversations. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/nz/blog/conversational-intelligence/201905/the-neuroscience-conversations