adventures in neuro-sociology

By Ben Slotznick
4/17/2017

When people interact in a group setting, sociologists have described an emotional energy as arising among the participants – an energy which fuels group ritual and cohesion – but what exactly is that energy? And how can an emotion – which we usually think of as manifesting inside a person – propagate among members of a group and draw them together? Sociology focuses primarily on groups of people, rather the interior life of the individual (which is usually considered the province of psychology), so what gives? And what does this have to do with neuroscientific research on the bio-chemical processes within a person’s body?

This essay will suggest a physiological basis for the perception of emotional energy across all members of the group – and without resorting to parapsychology or the science fiction of Vulcan mind-melds. But it will have to draw from the distinctive research (and jargon) of both sociology and neuroscience to bridge gaps between these disciplines. New and testable approaches will be described to help explore what we may call “neuro-sociology”.

Join us as we explore!

In brief, successful interactions among a group of people necessarily include stimuli – simultaneous, automatic, and reciprocal. A number of these stimuli have been documented to excite the individual neuro-systems of a group’s members, producing in each of them sensations both pleasurable and addictive. (Let’s call these “automatically reciprocal actions or stimuli”.) Then these sensations (or rather the bio-chemical neuro-transmitters in the individual neuro-systems which produce the sensations) mediate additional individual behaviors towards other group members. These behaviors in turn act to amplify and reinforce the pleasing sensations. (Let’s call these “interpersonal neuro-mediated feedback loops”.) Some individual actions also act as reflexive stimuli, producing such energizing sensations in both the actor and the object of the action.

What does all this mumbo-jumbo mean? It suggests that sociology’s discoveries about group emotional energy are often describing the sensations produced by group members’ bio-chemical neuro-transmitters – though much research needs to be done to confirm the connections, clarify the mechanisms, and identify additional ones.

This essay will suggest and elaborate hypotheses about several such mechanisms, including automatically reciprocal actions or stimuli and interpersonal neuro-mediated feedback loops, as well as reflexive aspects of them. Biological processes like these can link people to the inner workings of each other

Automatically reciprocal actions as stimuli

Let’s start with proposing a definition. In an “automatically reciprocal action” what an initiating actor does to someone else is automatically done by that someone else to the initiator. As an example, consider what happens when two people touch. When I touch you, you are of necessity touching me. Importantly, not only do you receive a stimulus from my action, but I receive the same (or similar) stimulus back from you. Other reciprocal actions can extend to a larger group. For example, when I sing along with you, you are singing along with me – and we are singing along with every other member of the group who is singing.

This is not merely a concern with syntax and grammatical construction. Rather it is describing actions and associated stimuli that are similar to feedback loops, but with an important difference. Unlike a feedback loop, an automatically reciprocal action returns the stimulus concurrently, immediately and instantaneously with no time delay. Unlike a feedback loop, an automatically reciprocal action cannot be divided into discrete steps. The action, its stimulus, the reciprocal action, and the stimulus of the reciprocal action are bound together as a unitary item.

At times this essay will refer to the stimuli produced by this mechanism as “automatically reciprocal stimuli”.

Under this paradigmatic mechanism, certain types of group activity present automatically reciprocal stimuli to all group members. These stimuli can simultaneously stimulate the neuro-system of each group member, so that each of their bodies produces a similar mix of bio-chemicals called neuro-transmitters. This essay posits that the neuro-transmitters are ultimately experienced by each group member – individually but concurrently – as an aspect of the group “emotional effervescence” described by sociologists since Emile Durkheim. It is this nature of automatically reciprocal stimuli which links group activity to each individual’s neurological processes and felt sensations – that are nonetheless felt at the same time as a group phenomenon.

Moreover, among the neurons which these various neuro-transmitters excite are some in the dopamine-mediated reward pathway in each group member’s brain. Because of the dopamine, this feeling has “pleasurable” aspects even if the common emotion involves sorrow or pain. Because of the dopamine, this feeling is reinforced and amplified, learned and imprinted. This essay postulates that group members experience this dopamine-assisted spike in neuro-modulators as part of the “emotional entrainment” described by sociologist Randall Collins. (Collins describes how participants in an interaction “develop a mutual focus of attention and become entrained in each other’s bodily micro-rhythms and emotions” and that experiencing the course of a chain of interactions binds participants – entrains them – to each other and the group itself.) The mechanism of automatically reciprocal stimuli links group activity to each individual’s neurological circuitry for learning and imprinting.

Individual group members come back to this specific group seeking this energizing sensation, the way an addict pursues drugs. The imprinted bio-chemical “high” tethers individuals to the group and each other, though it may seem to be a group phenomenon.

Parallel findings from sociology and neuroscience

I hope the paragraphs above have included dense enough jargon for our academic readers. So let’s pull back, and describe some of what sociology and neuroscience have found out about group interactions.

Sociologists have explored aspects of emotional energy and effervescence for over a century, including the more recent work of Randall Collins (see his book Interaction Ritual Chains, 2004, or for a very short overview of that book see my essay, “Binding Communities”). Group activities which can produce it include singing, dancing, cheering, mourning, protesting, and participating in both religious rituals and rock concerts. More intimate group activities which produce it include sex and other interactions between loving couples – plus social discussion, drinking, smoking, and watching or participating in sporting contests. When group members move in sync, their rhythmic entrainment produces emotional entrainment. However, according to Collins, group members must be in each other’s presence with all group members focused on a common object or activity, while sharing a common mood. Collins insists that emotional entrainment requires that group members be aware of who is included in as well as excluded from the group.

Now consider what neuro-scientists (particularly neuro-economists) have found about chemical neuro-transmitters such as oxytocin, serotonin, and testosterone. Much of this research is recent and much remains uncertain, with some issues obscured by non-replicability of results with respect to oxytocin. Nonetheless some research has found oxytocin (at times along with some of these other bio-chemicals) to be produced when people hold hands, when they sing together, dance together, march together, eat together, participate together in ritual, and have sex. Studies of social media use have found that physical presence is not always required for participants to produce oxytocin, that is, virtual presence will do. However physical presence seems to enhance the effect. With respect to some of these other bio-chemicals, competition, winning, increased status (including ascending to a leadership position), as well as new romantic partners induce the production of testosterone. (For more on this overview see my essay, “Molecular Bonds”).

The parallels are obvious between occasions when sociologists have observed occurrence of group emotional energy and when neuroscientists have observed production of neuro-transmitters. However, rigorous laboratory studies are needed to ascertain that these parallels are not coincidence.

The possibly differing stimuli for, and effects of, the various neuro-transmitters need to be teased out. Sociology uses phrases such as “emotional energy” and” entrainment”, but similar effects by different neuro-transmitters (or different mixes of neuro-transmitters) may clarify how different automatically reciprocal stimuli affect group cohesion through excitation of different neuron receptors. Similarly, details of the differing neuro-transmitters’ interactions in the dopamine-mediated reward pathways need be investigated. Issues include potentially differing aspects of imprinting as well as potential differing intensities of entrainment and bonding.

Neuro-modulation through reflexive stimulation

A related exploration concerns how some individual actions not only affect the neuro-systems of others, but reflexively affect the individual taking the action. We’ve mentioned one: when I touch you, you touch me – or to put it another way, I am being touched. (However described, the action can stimulate oxytocin production in both people.) Another reflexive action is telling someone you love them. In appropriate instances, this stimulates oxytocin production in both the person doing the telling and the one being told. (Of course, it may also induce the person being told to return the affirmation of love in a feedback loop such as described further below.)

Because much of the neuro-economic research to date has focused on trust or empathic effects of oxytocin and other neuro-transmitters, let’s explore reflexive aspects of an antithetical neuro-modulation.

Testosterone not only induces aggressive behavior, but aggressive behavior also stimulates production of more testosterone. So … someone acting aggressively cannot only stimulate aggressive behavior (and testosterone production) in someone else who responds with aggression, but can also reflexively increase the initiating aggressor’s own production of testosterone. This can include producing dihydrotestosterone, which stimulates the aggressor’s neuro-system to produce dopamine, making the aggression feel good – and reinforcing aggressive behavior. We’ll consider pro-social effects of aggression later, in discussion of a particularly elaborate interpersonal neuro-mediated feedback loop.

Interpersonal neuro-mediated feedback loops

Again we propose a definition. An “interpersonal neuro-mediated feedback loop” occurs when the actions of one person provide a stimulus to another (a second person) which stimulates neuro-transmitter production in that second person – and then these neuro-transmitters acting in the second person induce actions by that second person which provide a stimulus to the first person which stimulates neuro transmitter production in that first person. It is not necessary that the mix of neuro-transmitters is the same in all actors, nor that their actions are the same. The feedback loop can be more elaborate and involve multiple steps and multiple group members.

Notice the two directions of causation embedded in the description above. They present two kinds of inquiries: (a) what causes the body to produce a surge of various neuro-transmitters and (b) what does production of these neuro-transmitters affect or cause. With respect to the latter, this essay has focused on the energizing effect (emotional energy) and entrainment following a spike in bio-chemical neuro-modulators. In contrast, much of neuro-economic research has focused on how neuro-transmitters effect aspects of decision making in an economic context, such as their effect on trust and generosity. See for example Molly Crocket and Ernst Fehr in “Pharmacology of Economic and Social Decision Making” (2014), page 260:

“We … do not extensively consider studies examining correlations between neuromodulator levels and behavior, as we are primarily interested in the causal role of neuromodulators in decision making.”

As one example, Crocket and Fehr relate neuro-economic research showing how oxytocin increases trust and generosity with respect to those perceived of as “in-group” versus those in an “out-group”. Other researchers consider what Crocket and Fehr call “correlations” more extensively (and which we denote as the first type of causality described at the beginning of the paragraph). Such researchers (e.g. Paul Zak in The Moral Molecule, 2012) have found that displays of generosity towards others can enhance oxytocin production in those others, and can enhance reciprocal generosity as well.

Combining the research findings with respect to these two differing directions of causality suggests the possibility of oxytocin-based feedback loops between people. Because of their relationship to human dopamine-mediated reward pathways these feedback loops would be expected to reinforce the social behavior, such as in-group solidarity, that has been documented by Collins.

Neuro-economic research may focus on how decision making is affected by neuro-modulation, with some researchers emphasizing one-shot decision-making. There are good reasons for this given the emphasis on individual decision making in economics. However research concerning neuro-sociology would also wish to explore how oxytocin and other neuro-transmitters might increase both economic and non-economic in-group reinforcing behaviors which solidify group entrainment – and especially want to explore how the strength of such phenomena is affected by repetition over time.

To recap this argument, existing research in the fields of sociology and neuro-economics suggest the possibility, if not the likelihood, of interpersonal neuro-mediated feedback loops as a source of emotional entrainment. Much work needs to be done to confirm the dimensions of these phenomena. However, because of automatically reciprocal actions, these feedback loops are not necessary for beginning to explore, confirm, and understand a neuro-systemic explanation of the bio-chemical basis of emotional entrainment and feelings of group solidarity.

It takes two to tango, but …

Some automatically reciprocal actions can be unilaterally initiated. Consider that when I touch you, you are automatically touching me. However, others require at least two to initiate. For example, I can’t sing along with you, unless you are already singing – or we start singing together in mutual initiation. Many rituals and group interactions require either mutual initiation or someone to initiate and lead them. Other interactions require someone to facilitate or manage them. A leader may bring group members into a group discussion or ease others out after they’ve had the floor. Groups as well as their dynamics need to be managed, and sometimes “toxic” individuals excluded from the group. Comportment with group norms and reverence for group symbols need to be enforced.

Sociologist Randall Collins observes how those at the center of group interactions (whether or not designated as leaders) experience more of the group emotional energy than those at the periphery. And indeed may be imputed by group members to have more charisma or leadership status. Neuro-economist Paul Zak reported how a bride and groom after a wedding ceremony had higher levels of oxytocin than more distant family members in attendance (who nonetheless had elevated levels of this neuro-transmitter). With respect to other neuro-transmitters, one may speculate about differential levels of testosterone versus oxytocin among members of winning sports teams.

Parallel observations and speculations such as these are the sort of research which neuro-sociology would investigate for confirmation and linkages, as well as additional insights into what drives group dynamics.

Punishment, boundaries, and entrainment

Testosterone not only promotes aggression (especially in men) but it also interferes with the empathic aspects of oxytocin by blocking its neural receptors. Seemingly paradoxically, testosterone increases the desire to punish social slackers and free riders. Some, such as Jonathan Haidt in The Righteous Mind as well as Paul Zak in The Moral Molecule, suggest that this makes evolutionary sense because the mere threat of punishment promotes socially positive behavior and decreases cheating. Well sure, that seems plausible, but such an assertion is not a mechanism for how this works. So … this essay will suggest one.

  • The person at the center of group energy feels more energy and an increase in status and leadership.
  • Increases in leadership status stimulate testosterone.
  • Testosterone sets a trigger for punishment of free riders, and anti-social behavior.
  • Over time, punishment and the threat of punishment helps maintain the cohesion and energy of the group (which may be oxytocin-based rather than testosterone-based).
  • This maintains or increases the leadership status of the person at the center.

To conclude, I first apologize for the jargon both old and new, but we are trying to begin exploring neuro-sociology in a robust way that can be extended. I hope it provides useful and testable approaches.

Figuring out how individual acts can build energy that seems to embrace an entire group is no mean feat, though we have all experienced it. Perhaps we’ve experienced the roar of tens of thousands of fans while doing “the wave” at a football game. Perhaps our experience of this energy is more intimate – as the Lovin’ Spoonful sang, “We’ll go dancing, baby, then you’ll see/ How the magic’s in the music and the music’s in me.” In each case, our neuro-systems work to bond individuals together. In sociological terms, one might say this is the bio-chemistry that turns interactions into ritual chains. Or, most simply put, this is the bio-chemistry that makes us social animals.

For more information on Randall Collins’ work, read Interaction Ritual Chains (2004), Princeton Studies in Cultural Sociology, http://www.amazon.com/Interaction-Princeton-Studies-Cultural-Sociology/dp/0691123896.

The citation from Molly Crocket and Ernst Fehr comes from “Pharmacology of Economic and Social Decision Making”, which is Chapter 14 of Paul Glimcher and Ernst Fehr’s textbook, Neuroeconomics, Decision Making and the Brain, 2nd Edition (2014). It can be found at https://www.amazon.com/Neuroeconomics-Second-Decision-Published-Hardcover/dp/B00HQ1XBDE/ref=sr_1_fkmr0_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1490727316&sr=1-1-fkmr0&keywords=Glimcher+and+Fehr%2C+Neuroeconomics%2C+Decision+Making+and+the+Brain%2C+2nd+Edition+%282014%29.

For extensive (though somewhat selectively disputed) information about some of the experimental results concerning oxytocin and testosterone read Paul Zak, The Moral Molecule: How Trust Works (2012), https://www.amazon.com/Moral-Molecule-How-Trust-Works-ebook/dp/B0074VTHD4/ref=sr_1_3?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1486063033&sr=1-3&keywords=paul+zak.

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