Social Intelligence, Emotions and Brain Training

Prof. John Ratey is associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. He is co-author of Driven to Distraction, and A User’s Guide to the Brain: Perception, Attention, and the Four Theaters of the Brain -one of the best introductions to user-friendly brain research I have ever found. He is also the first scientist I am aware of who advocated, in a popular book, for a science-based “brain gym” to train a variety of cognitive skills/ mental muscles.

Thanks to the MindFields blog, we found an old interview with him, by Denise Winn, editor of the Human Givens Journal.

A few quotes from the great interview-worth reading entirely.

First, about Social Intelligence, the topic that Caroline was writing about last week:

JR (John Ratey): “Neurologists and neuroscientists have shown, for instance, that damage to the cortex can affect our ability to be empathic, that problems in the cerebellum can cause social ineptness and that deficits in the right hemisphere can make it hard to understand life’s overall picture. I think of these and other parts as making up the social brain.”…

DW (Denise Winn): “And now it is thought that this cerebellar deficit may explain some of the behaviours of autism?”

JR: “Yes, that’s where this work really started. Being off balance, not being able to do the social dance is a big element in autism. Neurologist Eric Courchesne has found that while a normal baby can shift attention from a parent’s nose to an eye or to the mouth in a fraction of a second, an autistic baby may need as many as five to six seconds to make these shifts. (…) a lot of interesting work has been done, mainly by the distinguished neurologist Antonio Damasio but also others, looking at this key area. The ventromedial cortex is a section of the frontal lobes and it is responsible for the emotion that colours our decision making processes, especially in the personal-social realm.

Contrary to the popular notion that decision making requires a cool head, it is feelings that point us in the right direction, and help us make moral, personal, predictive and planning decisions.”

Now, on the power of “brain training” and Brain Fitness Programs to develop new neuronal pathways and habits:

DW: “But many of the sort of things we’ve been discussing can be altered by training or practice, I think you say.”…

JR: “Okay, well, let’s go to an extreme. In some of the autism centres in the United States, one of the big training methods is to develop social practice sessions early on. The kids are taught not just to ask, “How are you?” in a contact with someone they know, but to ask a second question, which focuses on remembering something about that person and asking something personal like, “How did it go for you yesterday, at the test?” or whatever. That can be done through training. A study showed that just doing that really increased children’s socialisation.

It is the same thing with my engineers or my computer people. It is enormously helpful just getting them to modify the way they talk on the phone or to realise that, when they meet people, they don’t have to just talk and talk and talk, which some of them do and which then chases everybody away. Getting focused solely on answering another person’s question about themselves, instead of asking their own questions, ruins a lot of social interactions. Just by changing the script, or rather, by giving them a script, one can see a big change.”

Keep reading the interview.

More on social intelligence:

Social Intelligence and Mirror Neurons
Social Intelligence and the Frontal Lobes

 And on Antonio Damasio’s work on Emotions and Decision-Making




  1. eleanor said

    Thank you for your mention of our blog in this post!

  2. Alvaro said

    Thank you for letting us find that interview. And for your comments!

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