• Behaviour

Nakedness, Perception and Trust

Understanding how the whole of the emotional system works

Thursday 12 January 2012

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BRAIN GAIN: “We are a superficial species”, says Jonah Lehrer in November’s Wired Science when considering nakedness, (as psychologists like ...only professionally of course). “The human mind sees minds everywhere. Show us a collection of bouncing balls and we hallucinate ‘agency’; a glance at a stuffed animal and we endow it with a mood ... we are constantly translating our visual perceptions into a theory of mind.”


It is all to do with how we attribute intention – not only to other people but bouncing balls and stuffed animals too. Linked to nakedness, the double entendres may or may not be intended.
“What does all this have to do with nakedness? It’s quite easy to shift our perceptions of other people from having a mind full of agency (self-control and action) to having a mind interested in experience (emotion and sensation): all they have to do is take off their clothes.”

“But this intricate connection between mind-theorizing and sensory perception can also prove problematic,” says Lehrer. “… when people glance at strangers who look ‘different’ – perhaps they dress funny, or belong to a different ethnic group – they endow these strangers with less agency, a fancy term for the ability to plan, act and exert self-control.”

“Or consider a 2010 fMRI experiment that found that when men glance at ‘sexualized’ women they exhibit reduced activation in parts of the brain typically associated with the attribution of mental states.” A hint of cleavage goes a long way to switching off critical parts of the male brain, it seems. “We judge books by the cover and minds by their appearance” says Lehrer.

It is worth following this line of thought with regard to trust – a topic that is moving fast to the top of the executive agenda. PwC produced two reports at the end of 2010 (Trust: the overlooked asset and Trust: the behavioural challenge). The research agency Populus has recently produced a Report for lawyers DLA Piper entitled The Trust Deficit – Views from the Boardroom. And Spectator business editor Martin Vander Weyer (Christmas 2011 issue) tells how he found himself uncharacteristically in a pulpit criticising Godliness and Economics with the Populus report in mind.

If perceptions of an individual are deeply embedded in the non-conscious parts of the brain, as they are, and create (equally non-conscious) decisions for immediate interpersonal action, how might a low-trust environment be shifted towards one of higher trust? – presuming, of course, that such a shift is a desirable aim. The answer lies in understanding how the whole of the emotional system works.

Low trust spells immediate danger. In consequence those almond-shaped structures buried deep in the middle-front centre of the brain, the amygdala, put the whole system on immediate alert. They tune the social brain for self-preservation behaviours – like politicking – and consequently inhibit creative contribution to the team or good forward thinking as well as a vast range of other useful executive actions.

‘Trust”, however, like “love”, is one of the irreducible human emotions. There are six others, to which the next Brain Gain piece will return in a more systematic critique of the neuroscientifically-uninformed thinking in the PwC and Populus reports. Complex though trust is, it is simply known and understood by the brain – indeed the whole of the body too. For instance, it profoundly affects the immune system, which is what the trusting relationship created by good nursing or the old-fashioned GP’s bedside manner mobilised.

“Trust” is, to human relationships, what oxygen is to the brain. Without it effective relationships become lifeless. But should it be established as a KPI as PwC suggests? The answer is a profound “no”. It is much too valuable to be treated as a competitive asset. This is not to deny, however, its special value to the corporate world as an endless source of the energy that organisations need to make sustainable profit.

Why that is the case the next Brain Gain piece will show. Superficial we may be when confronted with a cleavage – we men, anyway. For women it’s more complicated. But, male or female, we are decidedly profound in those things called ‘the emotions’ that fundamentally affect our brains and thus all our behaviours as human beings.

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