The Amazing Human Brain and Human Development

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Lesson 4: Communication and Defense
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Communication and Defense

Welcome to Lesson 4 of the Amazing Human Brain. Communication is a complicated process that has taken many, many years to evolve. Now that you've spent the first three lessons learning about the fine points of the physical brain, you'll learn how the brain operates something as intangible as communication.

We will also talk about how different parts of the brain respond to trauma. I asked you to log on to the Message Board with your thoughts about this in Lesson 3. Let's see how close you were.

Humans are Special

Communication between one human and another is the hallmark of our species. Communication was the critical capacity required for survival during the thousands of generations of our evolution. Naked, slow, weak, and without biological armor or weapons, humans survived by living and hunting in groups. Interdependent individuals created a strong, flexible, and adaptive "whole" -- the band, the clan, the tribe.

While physically separate and self-aware, individual humans are linked by the invisible bonds of sensation, perception, and communication into larger biological units, or groups. One individual may belong to many groups -- a couple, a family, and a working group. Each group has a unique set of tasks and a set of rewards for its members. The integrity and function of the group is formed, maintained, and changed by social interaction.

The human brain developed remarkable biological apparatus dedicated specifically to social perception and communication, verbal and non-verbal. These underlying biological properties are continually at play in all human interactions -- sensing, processing, perceiving, storing, and acting on signals from other humans. All human interactions are governed by core principles of communication that are the product of neurobiological processes shaped by thousands of years of evolutionary pressures.

Through the evolutionary process, the remarkable expressive communication capacity of the face was further refined. In fact, facial expression became the most important of all social communication instruments. What else has the capacity to both reflect the internal emotional state of the individual and elicit a specific emotional and social response? The various faces we make can express the full range of human emotions.

Beware of Strangers

During their development, each person creates a catalogue of familiar faces and stores these as templates for familiar/safe. In these familiar faces, the infant and child learn the non-verbal language of the group as surely as they learn the verbal language. An unfamiliar face will elicit a low-level alarm response in any individual. All new faces are judged to be threatening until proven otherwise.

 Two factors provoke this reaction. First, the brain's information matching process is very conservative. All novel situations and new information are judged to be threatening until proven otherwise. The second specific reason that new faces elicit a low-level alarm is that the human brain evolved in a world where, for thousands of generations, the major threats to any individual were other humans.

A new person, a new face in the typical interaction from our history meant that there were other humans around competing for the same water, fruits, game, and cave. This new person was as likely to attack as he was to decide to affiliate or cooperate. Across generations, wariness to new individuals, new groups, and new ideas was selected and built into the circuits of the human brain's alarm response.

Mismatching and Human Behaviors

Templates for faces and facial features of same/safe/familiar, like all other templates for emotional, behavioral, and social functioning, are set during childhood. The tendency to have an alarm response when exposed to an unfamiliar face or mismatched facial features is at the root of many human behaviors.

Despite very minor differences in facial feature placement, almost all people can immediately recognize a Down syndrome child. This matching against previous template faces is at the root of racism (and is a strong argument for placing children of different races together in school and play, allowing them to acquire a diverse set of internal templates for what is same/safe/familiar).

This capacity to match diverse information against previous templates of multi-sensorial input is also at the root of the recognition of deceit. When words do not match body movement, facial expression, or the tone of voice, the brain "senses" a multi-sensory mismatch.

When someone says, "I love you," there are accompanying non-verbal signals validating the verbal information, such as eye contact or facial expression. The same can be said of someone who is telling the truth. Children raised with caregivers who "talk the talk" but don't "walk the walk" (e.g., those exposed to domestic violence or multiple foster homes) internalize patterns of communication and interaction that are distorted and often destructive. This is also how a child learns the mismatched association between intimacy, power, violence, and threat.

Through thousands of generations of evolutionary selection the brain developed its amazing capacity to read non-verbal cues, many of which are communicated via changes in facial expression. The brain has special face and expression recognition capabilities and, through a process of "matching" expressions and faces with existing templates, makes decisions about the familiarity and intent of the specific interaction.

Secondary Cues to Template Recognition

Because we have a limited capacity for categorizing and matching specific faces and facial expressions, the brain utilizes other cues to make decisions about potential friends and enemies. Characteristics such as body movements, postures, or other symbolic trappings of recognition, such as clothes, uniforms, or style of haircut, are used to make secondary decisions about recognition. You may not recognize the face, but the haircut, clothes, or manner of interaction can readily identify someone as "familiar/good" or as "familiar/bad."

This categorizing tendency is the basis for a host of well-described and common phenomenon in human interaction -- including first impressions or using "known" celebrities to sell products or ideas. A classic example of this in the mental health field is transference. This is the phenomenon of attaching multiple attributes of a past relationship to one in the present when only one of those attributes may truly be present (e.g., reacting to a male therapist with the intensity that was present in a paternal relationship).

Children raised in deceitful settings easily lie without detection. They have not internalized the same non-verbal templates associated with deceit as the rest of society has. For these children, the development of sociopathic characteristics is merely an adaptation to the deceitful, inconsistent, and unrewarding world their caregivers have created for them.


I Understand

Central to the invisible biological processes that allow social interaction is communication -- the capacity to perceive and understand others and to express meaning and intention to others. Just as there are parts of the brain responsible for moving, seeing, or hearing, there are systems in our brains dedicated to social affiliation and communication.

Yet Another Brainy Factoid

Although we do have the gift of language, we are not unlike non-human primates when we resort to "hollering" and beating our chests. While humans rely on their words to impart intent, our non-verbal communication (mostly mediated by our faces) is still our primary form of communication. Think about it. How often have we all experienced this -- rolled eyes ever so slightly with the smallest down turn of the mouth at the same time their words say, "Oh, that sounds good." Now what do they really mean? We humans use words to conceal as much as we use them to reveal.

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