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Your Brain on the Web

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"Keep Your Thumbs Still When I'm Talking to You" read a recent headline in the Sunday Styles section of the New York Times.

The rudeness of texting during a conversation is but one of the new don'ts emerging in the unfolding universe of webequette, the new rules for social life on the web.

But while such pointers may smooth over some trouble spots, they do nothing about the fundamental collision between the ways we connect digitally, and the connections our brain was designed to crave.

Nature designed the brain for face-to-face interactions -- not the online world. A new field, social neuroscience, has discovered that large zones of the brain's frontal areas are dedicated to tuning in to the person we're with, picking up their emotions, movement, even intentions, and coordinating what we do with all that.

We have what amounts to a neural WiFi which makes a brain-to-brain bridge while we interact, that operates instantly, unconsciously and powerfully to keep it all going smoothly. More important, when we feel rapport, or come away from a conversation with a friend glowing from a good talk, this is the circuitry that makes us feel that glow.

So what's the problem? The online universe, from Facebook and Twitter to texting to email, has no channel for this vital brain-to-brain flow. All that dialogue seems, well, thin, compared to the richness of actually being with the other person. For the social brain, hundreds of contacts online in a day pale in comparison to a hug.

Consider how social brains interact when we're sitting looking at a video monitor instead of directly at another person. The social brain needs feedback moment-to-moment from what the other person is doing -- but online the screen is blank. A live video conference gives the social brain the input it craves, and even a phone call offers much data, since voice alone carried thick emotional nuance. But lacking these, it's an emotional desert (and emoticons just don't match the richness of the missing data).

Email actually tricks the brain. When we sit at the keyboard typing out our message, the brain assumes that all the other clues that signal the emotional part of that message go out, too. If someone assumes the message they just sent was positive, research shows, the receiver is more likely to take it as fairly neutral. If the sender thinks the message was neutral, the receiver is more likely to read a negative spin into it.

So how can you overcome the negativity bias in a really important email? A phone call would do it. And if possible, there's that tried-but-true method: get together and talk it over.

Daniel Goleman's latest book, The Brain and Emotional Intelligence: New Insights, is available only in digital format.

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