To survive and thrive, we have to understand how the world’s various systems function. This encompasses such things as knowing the flow of days and seasons; whether a dropped object will bounce, splat, or break; and how water shifts among its fluid, frozen, and gaseous states.

Human life is a major subset of the world’s systems, so much of our time and energy is focused on trying to understand and get along with each other. Last month’s column focused on the sense of gratitude we feel when objects and other people enrich our life. This month’s related column will focus on an excellent new book by Daniel Goleman, Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relations (2006).

Goleman rose to international prominence a decade ago with Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than I.Q. (1995), an informative, easily read book that synthesized the dramatic developments that had been emerging out of emotion research. The conventional wisdom had previously viewed our emotional arousal system as a disembodied and often unruly phenomenon. Goleman demystified it by explaining its underlying neurobiology, and by then suggesting how we can consciously use this biological thermostat as a force to enhance the quality of our life.

In Social Intelligence, Goleman similarly synthesizes the growing body of cultural and neuroscience research on how we develop social awareness and manage our social relationships. We can thus consider the two books as companion volumes—about understanding what occurs within (Emotional Intelligence) and what occurs between (Social Intelligence).

What occurs between can be thought of as the range of relationships that exist within a social continuum. At one end we’re simply emotionally neutral and detached from a person with whom we’re interacting (such as a supermarket checker). At the other end, we’re rude and exploitative, assuming that the other person exists at the level of an object, to satisfy our needs. Psychopaths and sociopaths would exemplify behavior at that far end of the continuum.

The relationships in the center of this continuum imply a close empathetic human relationship that’s temporarily or permanently tuned to the experiences, needs, and feelings of another person. Goleman suggests that we are constantly involved in both close and detached relationships, and that our relationship with a person can appropriately shift back and forth between close and detached, depending on the circumstances.

Many relationships are better off detached, in that most folks don’t appreciate intrusive restaurant waiters; and realize that the professional judgment of one’s physician, attorney, or counselor may be negatively affected by a close personal relationship.

Exploring a Social Brain
Neuroimaging technologies have revolutionized the study of complex brain properties and systems. Our brain has been described as a social brain, because hundreds of separate processing systems collaborate in the execution of thought and behavior, and because our brain is organized to empathetically connect us to the thoughts and behaviors of others.

Social decisions and behavior are especially complex, and so they require the collaboration of many processing systems. The research technologies capable of imaging such processes have emerged only recently, so Goldman’s explanations and discussions of the relative brain systems thus have an exciting immediacy about them.

Our Social Brain
Like objects and fluids, social relationships can also bounce, splat, break, flow, freeze, and even disappear into a gaseous state. Since an organism’s potential resources and survival are enhanced within a collaborative setting, the development of good social relationships creates a decided advantage. Social competence has thus become a central human property.

Goleman explores and explains the various brain processing systems and combinations of systems that allow us to be sociably adept. Chief among these is the recently discovered mirror neuron system that is central to social thought and behavior. Mirror neurons prime our own movements, but they also activate when we observe another person make the same movement. Since any goal-directed motor behavior involves sequences of actions (such as to focus on, reach for, grasp, and then throw a ball), the neuronal sequence that regulates the overall movement thus activates in parallel in the brains of both the actor and the observer. We can therefore infer the intentions and motivations of another person, and act accordingly.

Mirror neurons also activate when we observe an emotional reaction in another person, and so provide the neuronal basis of empathy. Mirror neurons thus help to create the contagious behavior that is so integral to social life—the shared grief at a funeral, the shared joy at a birthday.

Goleman explores social intelligence as both a functional and biological phenomenon. Social intelligence allows us to develop an enhanced awareness of the mind of others, and to develop the skills that we need to maintain appropriate relationships. Goleman also explores these functional elements in terms of the cognitive processing systems that regulate various social behaviors.

Social Awareness
Social awareness refers to the behavioral range that runs from instantly sensing the inner state of other people, to understanding their feelings and thoughts, to comprehending the meaning and significance of complicated social situations. This awareness includes:

Primal Empathy: To sense the non-verbal emotional signals of others and to feel what they are feeling.

Attunement: To attend and attune to others with a sustained receptivity that leads to rapport.

Empathetic Accuracy: To consciously and accurately understand another person’s thoughts, feelings, and intentions. Mirror neurons function at a subliminal level, but we often need to add prior experience with the immediate challenge in order to consciously grasp and appropriately respond to the real intentions of the other person (such as in contract negotiations, or when confronting an assailant).

Social cognition: Knowing how the social world works (such as the appropriate behavior in restaurants and museums, the appropriate conversation for various social settings). Social cognition emerges out of the development of primal empathy, attunement, and empathetic accuracy.

Social Facility
To simply sense how other people feel, or to know what they think or intend, doesn’t guarantee fruitful interactions. Social skills build on social awareness to allow smooth, effective interactions. The spectrum of social facility includes:

Synchrony: To interact smoothly with others at the non-verbal level. This includes the ability to automatically read and respond to nonverbal cues (such as knowing when to smile and frown, how to orient our body). While these skills develop effortlessly in many children, the awkward behavior of others reduces the quality of their social life.

Self-Presentation: To present ourselves effectively in social situations, so that others can easily understand how we feel and think about the issues at hand.

Influence: To help shape the outcome of social interactions in a manner that is acceptable to others. Most social issues require at least some negotiation, so it’s very important to learn how to negotiate fairly and effectively.

Concern: To care about and appropriately act on the needs of others. The behavioral spectrum is broad—from simply holding a door open for a person laden with packages to contributing to charitable and cultural institutions. We’re a highly interdependent social species, and so it’s inappropriate for us to expect others but not ourselves to contribute to common needs.

The functional elements of social intelligence identified above constitute the heart of the book, but what’s especially fascinating is how Goleman draws on recent brain research to ground these functions in neurobiology. These forms of awareness and behavior do have an underlying biological explanation. This means that we can move towards the educational enhancement of social intelligence, and to effective interventions when the system goes awry.

That’s good news! And Social Intelligence is an excellent, readable source of information on the entire phenomenon!