Dr. Sylwester is a well-known authority on how better understanding of the brain can shed light on education practices that directly impact the classroom.

Connecting Brain Processes to School Policies and Practices
A monthly column that explores scientific and technological developments that pose problems and possibilities for educational policy and practice.

Robert Sylwester

Social Intelligence
December 2006

By Robert Sylwester, Ed.D.

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!


Goleman, D. (2006) Social intelligence: The new science of human relationships . New York: Bantam.

Goleman, D. (1995) Emotional intelligence: Why it can matter more than I.Q. New York: Bantam.




Gifts and Gratitude
November 2006

By Robert Sylwester, Ed.D.

Reinhold Marxhausen was a creative colleague who taught at Concordia University in Nebraska. For example, he would take his art students to the city dump on the last class session before the Thanksgiving break, because the dump contained the remnants of all the things that had brought joy to the community that year – the cans that had contained food, the boxes that had protected purchases, the tools and equipment that had outlived their usefulness. The sad end of all these things was a jumbled smelly mess, but Marxhausen appropriately thought that folks ought to recognize and be thankful that this huge pile of junk had actually enhanced their year.

Marxhausen encouraged his students to express their gratitude for such junk by creating artistic expressions out of combinations of the discarded objects—to give them a second life grounded more in aesthetics than utility. The recycled objects would thus become valuable for their own artistic sake. A container would abandon its former existence as a mere protective covering of something that was considered more important at the time, magazine page segments would communicate an entirely different message within a collage, and an inoperative vacuum cleaner would move from the disgrace of being discarded to the transformational prestige of being the base of a funky floor lamp (that then regrettably illuminated the surrounding dust).

Recycling has now become a cultural commonplace. Composted food scraps jump-start next year’s garden. Communities recycle bottles, cans, paper, and cardboard. Someone happily purchases the clothing that others had discarded at a resale shop.

But then, isn’t it also a form of recycling when we turn trees into books and housing, and plants into food and flower arrangements—a technological shift away from their natural state, as it were? It’s this constant shifting of functional states within the biosphere that makes life so interesting and celebratory. Sunflowers in a garden became sunflowers in a vase became Vincent Van Gogh’s painting of sunflowers in a vase became print reproductions that have already added 100 years to the otherwise short lifespan of that mundane vase of sunflowers.

So hooray for a world that gives us multiple opportunities to use, share, and enjoy anything and everything!

The Sociology and Neurobiology of Thankfulness

Gifts and gratitude help to define the final part of the year, a time to look back on what’s occurred and to anticipate what might occur. Thanksgiving, Ramadan, Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and other late year commemorative festivals all involve exchanges of good wishes and presents of one sort or another (yet another form of recycling).

Even Halloween is a kind of pleasant childhood spoof on the late year gift and gratitude focus—‘Give me a treat or I’ll play a trick on you’. The resulting mock fear and meager treat typically elicits profuse laughter and thanks. Adult white elephant gift exchanges are similarly pleasant spoofs on the recycled reality of inappropriate year-end gifts.

We’re amused, but gifts and gratitude are serious business for humans—deeply embedded within our brain’s functional organization.

Our brain’s cortex (the large deeply folded outer part) is organized to consciously recognize and respond to the novel and familiar dangers and opportunities that we confront. The back half determines the nature of the challenge and the front half determines how best to respond. The right hemisphere focuses on the development of creative solutions to novel challenges, and the left hemisphere processes the established responses we’ve developed for familiar challenges.

Determining whether the challenge is a danger or opportunity is very important and often problematic, since something that could be a danger in one setting could become an opportunity in another. Further, our life may hang in the balance of our ability to proceed correctly and rapidly. Since it takes a lot of cognitive energy to make up our mind about how best to proceed in many of the challenges we confront, we tend to appreciate help.

We’re a social interdependent species in a complex environment, so something that’s negative (a danger) for one person is often positive (an opportunity) for another, and a novel challenge for one person is often familiar to another. For example, that a plumber has circulatory system problems creates an internist’s opportunity for work, and that the plumbing in the internist’s house has problems creates work for the plumber. We’re grateful that this reciprocal arrangement means that we don’t have to personally solve all the problems we confront.

Family and friends are most involved in this reciprocal arrangement, in that we often formally and informally help each other. We also recall important help we received from others years ago, and try to reciprocate with them and/or their children when we have the opportunity. Tit-for-tat is an important concept that helps to maintain human society. We leave tips for hotel maids we don’t meet, and waiters we’ll never see again. We give directions to strangers who are lost, financial support to charitable organizations that don’t directly affect us, and pay taxes for prisons and fire departments we hope to never use.

It all seems to come together and peak at the end of the year. The harvest is in, and so it’s a good time to add up the pluses and minuses. Giving gifts and expressing gratitude in various celebratory gatherings of family and friends has long seemed a good way to end the year and maintain cognitive equilibrium. That many go beyond this into spiritual forms of gifts and gratitude should come as no surprise.

We often combine gratitude with food, and serious gratitude events tend to involve serious eating. Meat and cakes are typically the center of such feasts, and they’re the kind of food that most often has special traditional status (such as turkey at Thanksgiving and cakes at birthdays). It’s similarly interesting that almost all religious food taboos involve meat (in that I know of no religious taboos on Brussels sprouts).

Feasts are fun—gifts from the earth and from each other, with a generous frosting of gratitude for good measure.


Robert Sylwester is an Emeritus Professor of Education at the University of Oregon. He focuses on the educational implications of new developments in science and technology and has written several books and over 150 journal articles. His most recent books are A biological brain in a cultural classroom: Enhancing cognitive and social development through collaborative classroom management (2003, Corwin Press. second edition) and How to explain a brain: An educator's handbook of brain terms and cognitive processes (2004, Corwin Press). The Education Press Association of America gave him three Distinguished Achievement Awards for his published syntheses of cognitive science research. He has made over 1400 conference and in-service presentations on educationally significant developments in brain/stress theory and research.