Social and Mechanical Reasoning Inhibit Each Other
The brain can't engage social and mechanical reasoning at the same time.
Posted Nov 05, 2012
I've got two questions for you.
Did your head feel any different while you were solving each problem? If so, that's because deep within the recesses of your cortex two different brain networks were battling with each other for control of your attention. Only one won.
In a recent study, Anthony Jack and colleagues argue that the crucial distinction between the two networks isn't internal vs. external attention but information processing. In particular, they argue that the DMN is associated with social information processing (reasoning about the minds of others), whereas the EAN network is associated with non-social information processing (reasoning about physical objects).
To test their hypothesis, they presented participants with social and physical scenarios (text and video), and asked them to predict the outcomes. The social scenes resembled soap operas, and were rich in emotional and moral content. In contrast, the mechanical scenarios described puzzles similar to the kind found in popular scientific puzzle books. While participants were thinking about the scenarios, their brains were being scanned by an fMRI machine.
What the researchers saw in the brain supported their theory. When people were reasoning about mechanical objects, the EAN brain network was activated and the DMN network was suppressed. In contrast, when people were engaged in social reasoning, the DMN network was active and the EAN network was supressed. These findings suggest we may have two fundamentally different versions of external reality that are constantly competing with each other for control of our perceived reality! After all, both tasks required external attention, were unfamiliar to the participants, and minimized the activation of personal memories.
The researchers suggest that the key is "cognitive context". Our primary mode of cognition in any moment in time has a powerful effect on the entire brain. When we must reason about the mental state of others, the brain recruits DMN resources and inhibits other brain networks. In contrast, when we must reason about physical objects, our social brain is shut down. This research is consistent with prior studies that have found that solving math problems suppresses empathy (giving charitable donations).
The results are also consistent with dual-process theories. According to my dual-process theory of human intelligence, human intelligence consists of two main types of cognitive processes: Goal-Directed and Spontaneous. According to the theory, neither mode of thought is universally more "intelligent" than the other. What's important is context.
Our brain evolved the intelligent ability to switch brain networks depending on what kinds of mental representations are necessary for survival and reproduction. This is a good thing, since mixing mental representations can lead to the formulation of inappropriate strategies. As the researchers sensibly point out,
"It would be no less foolish to suppose that a person will continue in motion in a straight line unless acted upon by an external force, than it would be to suppose that a pool ball will alter its course because it wants to go into the pocket."
The mental representation of other people's minds and emotions is tightly linked to moral concerns (see here). Jack and colleagues argue that the inhibition between domains is driven by the need to differentiate members of our moral circle from objects suitable for manipulation. In terms of effective strategies, it would be a mistake to limit the actions one is willing to perform on an inanimate object out of a sense of compassion. They believe that antagonism between domains reflects a powerful human tendency to differentiate between conscious persons and inanimate objects in both our attitudes and modes of interaction.
I think the jury is still out on how best to characterize the difference between the DMN and the EAN brain networks. The internal vs. external attention distinction may still be the correct one, especially considering how many people with altered brain networks report feeling literally trapped in their own heads. Nevertheless, I look forward to future research on this important topic, as it is sure to shed light what makes us human, as well as what makes us each unique.
© 2012 by Scott Barry Kaufman.