Part I: The High Road and the Low Road

Early in the Iraq war, a U.S. Army platoon was dispatched to a mosque to ask advice from the town’s chief cleric about distributing relief supplies. Fearing the soldiers had come to arrest their spiritual leader or to destroy their mosque, an angry mob surrounded the platoon. Seizing a loudspeaker, the platoon commander ordered his troops first to point their rifles towards the ground, then to kneel, then to smile, then to back away slowly guns lowered, still smiling. The mob’s angry mood morphed and most smiled back at the troops. The commander engaged his neural circuits that determine whether we fight or flee. In a split-second, he engaged the mob brain-to-brain, checked the crowd’s “chemistry”, and disengaged their hostility.

Our social brains are hard wired to connect with other people. We are designed to be sociable, even in routine encounters. With new tools such as the magnetic imaging resonator (MRI), social neuroscience can now detail the neural mechanics at work in such moments. During neural linkups with other people, our brains engage in “an emotional tango, a dance of feelings” that send out cascades of hormones rippling through our bodies. These hormones regulate biological systems from our hearts to our immune cells. Brain-to-brain links are a double-edged sword: nourishing relationships have a beneficial impact on our health, while toxic links can act like slow poison in our bodies.

Whenever we connect face-to-face, voice-to-voice or skin-to-skin with another person, our social brains interlock. The more strongly we are connected, the greater the mutual force. By repeatedly driving our brains into a given register, our key relationships gradually mold our neural circuits. Social intelligence is about looking beyond others as mere individuals – it’s about acting wisely inside human relationships.

Most of the social neuroscience Goleman discusses has been discovered since publication of his Emotional Intelligence in 1995. Until recently, neuroscience studied one brain at a time. Now, neuroscience is analyzing two brains at once, unveiling a hitherto undreamed-of neural duet – an interpersonal tango -- as people interact.

Every human interaction has an emotional subtext. Emotions are contagious -- the emotional equivalent of a cold. When someone dumps toxic or nourishing feelings on us, they activate our own circuitry for those very same emotions. Long after what transpires in the moment, we retain the mood of that encounter: either afterglow or afterglower.

The amygdala, a vigilant almond-shaped organ in the mid-brain, is our early warning emotional radar. The amygdala shapes our thoughts, attention, and perception about whatever has made us afraid. The amygdala is not connected to the verbal part of the brain. It extracts emotional meaning from non-verbal messages received through our senses, without engaging our verbal or conscious faculties. This is the brain’s “low road”, dripping with emotion.

The brain’s “high road” runs through our verbal and cognitive neural systems that work slower and more deliberately. We’re aware of the high road and have some control over it. The low road traffics in raw feelings. The high road provides a considered understanding of what’s going on. The low road lets us immediately feel with someone else; the high road can think about what we feel.

Our social lives are governed by the interplay of these two roads. An emotion can pass from person to person without anyone noticing it because the contagion circuitry lies on the low road. The low road is faster but less accurate; the high road is slower and mindful. By the time the low road has reacted, sometimes all the high road can do is make the best of things. Outside our awareness, the amygdala compulsively scans everyone we encounter, asking whether they can be trusted. The low road labors to keep us safe.

Low road communication plies several circuits. One is facial expression. A “believe-what-I’m-saying” eyelock reveals little about whether someone’s telling us the truth. Lying requires conscious intentional activity in the high road. Lying takes mental effort, concentration and time. Facial muscles are controlled by the low road. The high road conceals but the low road reveals. As law enforcement is learning, a certain involuntary facial expression lasting no more than a thirtieth of a second, can signal a lie.

Non-verbal links build connection. When we interact with others, our bodies tend to mimic the other’s emotions. That’s emotional contagion at work. Interestingly, over long marriages spouses tend to look more alike, in part because of emotional tangos danced over many years. Call it rapport or simpatico, the essentials of nourishing relationships are: mutual attention (both partners experience being experienced), shared positive feelings (exchanged e.g. through voice tone and facial expressions), and a well-coordinated non-verbal duet e.g. pace and timing of conversation and body movements.

The more partners synchronize their movements and mannerisms, the more positively they feel about each other. Any conversation operates on two levels: high road rationality (words and meanings) and a low road protoconversation, an unspoken emotional link beneath the words. Protoconversations begin in life with “Motherese” interactions between mother and infant. Babies learn to synchronize emotionally long before they have words for those feelings. Such protoconversations remain our most basic template for interacting with others throughout life.

The brain’s mirror neurons make emotions contagious. Our mental lives are co-created through them. Mirror neurons allow sports fans to lock onto others’ athletic achievements that the fans could not themselves accomplish.

We can usually trace back to the source of our emotions, whereas our moods seem to come from nowhere. Moods can sweep through a group very rapidly e.g. soccer hooligans or the mob at the mosque when confronted by the platoon. Confirming the platoon commander’s instinct, smiles are the most contagious of all emotions. “When you’re smiling, the whole world smiles with you.”

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