Yale researchers say this is how our brains react to different social situations

Various regions of the mind activate in response to social interactions, but a fascinating new study has discovered that our brains respond differently depending on the background of the person (or persons) we’re engaging with.

More specifically, researchers from Yale University and University College London have found that brain activity is quite different while talking with someone of a similar socio-economic background (similar education, family income) in comparison to a conversation with someone from a different socio-economic background.

All in all, the research team behind these findings is quite pleased with what they’ve discovered. They believe their work strongly suggests all humans are capable of having meaningful, positive interactions with others – regardless of how different two people’s backgrounds may be.

“For the first time, we have identified the neural mechanisms involved in social interactions between people of different backgrounds,” says study co-author Joy Hirsch, from UCL Medical Physics & Biomedical Engineering and Yale, in a release.

“I believe our findings offer a hopeful message. We know that humans can have positive social encounters with others who are different. Now we have the neurobiological basis – our brains have apparently developed a frontal lobe system that helps us deal with diversity,” she adds.

When two people from different socioeconomic backgrounds began to speak with one another, researchers observed a higher level of brain activity within both parties’ left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (a region of the frontal lobe). That neural region has been linked to language control, cognition, speech production, and attentional control. 

Importantly, these results mesh well with earlier studies that had concluded the frontal lobe in general helps detect and regulate biased behaviors. 

So, it appears our minds automatically work just a little bit harder while we’re interacting with someone from a different background. Put in another way, a unique sequence of neural activity is activated in response to such situations. All of this occurs to (hopefully) facilitate a positive social interaction.

“We wanted to know if the brain responded differently when we talked to others of a different socioeconomic background. Now we know that it does and that humans have a neurobiology that helps us navigate social differences,” comments lead study author Olivia Descorbeth, a Yale University graduate who originally formulated the idea for this research.

Human interaction is simultaneously simple and incredibly complex. Every tiny movement, voice inflection, choice of words, or bat of the eyes has the potential to be misinterpreted by another person. While talking with someone from a very different background, the odds of such miscommunications are typically higher. It seems our minds evolved to pick up on all that and do their best to mitigate the likelihood of a negative exchange.

After all the conversations, participants who had been paired with another person from a very different background also reported slightly higher levels of mid-conversation anxiety and effort.

A total of 39 pairs of participants (aged 19-44 years old) took part in this research, with each person wearing a brain activity tracking headset during the conversation. In fact, a new approach called functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) was used by the research team to track brain activity. This strategy entails keeping close track of blood flow and oxygenation via near-infrared light fluctuations. On a more practical level, fNIRS is also convenient because it only involves wearing a light, unburdensome headset.

To mitigate the effect of other potentially influential variables, researchers did their best to pair subjects together based on age, gender, and race.

Each conversation lasted a total of 12 minutes, and each pairing was randomly assigned four subjects to converse on. For example, “What did you do last summer?” or “How do you bake a cake?”

After each conversation had ended, participants were asked about their educational history as well as their parents’ annual income. Based on those two factors, each pairing of participants who had spoken with one another was classified as either “high-disparity” or “low-disparity” depending on how different their socioeconomic backgrounds were. Those in the high-disparity group showed much higher levels of brain activity while conversing.

It’s easy to get wrapped up in everything that divides us these days, but it’s nice to know that even on a neural level our minds are constantly working to bridge that gap. 

The full study can be found here, published in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience.