History has given modern society the concept that all humans are equal. This is a political truism that has spawned governments and has civilized our culture. It is at the center of our belief system that there is a right and a wrong, a good and a bad in almost everything. Equality is at the very core of who we are. We cringe when some nut-job tries to prove scientifically that one race or gender or nationality is inferior to another. Somehow with all this going for us we fail to understand “why doesn’t everyone just think like me.”
So what does this have to do with networking? Most recruiters, career coaches, academic advisers, and all of the most reputable helpers of a job seeker will always put networking on the top of the list of important sources to find a new job. Statistics have proven over and over that this method works, so why do so many have a hard time making it happen? I have told groups of job seekers that this is the first place to begin looking for a job, given them examples of how to do it, provided tools to make it work, and the next morning they log onto Monster to apply to a few jobs and believe that their work is done. They never pick up the phone or meet anyone to discuss what they are doing. So, I am curious: “why doesn’t everyone just think like me.” Is this not something that can be taught? Or learned? Intellectually I know that most people will never play professional sports or become a rock star, but isn’t this networking thing so simple anyone can do it? Could it be possible that the wiring in the brain could make this difficult for most of us? Well, actually there has been scientific research which shows that the ability to form social connections is related to how our brain is wired.
Recent technology has allowed tremendous breakthrough research into how the human brain operates. It was known since the days of brutal gladiatorial combat that different portions of the brain controlled various functions of the body. These primitive notions were eventually proved in the laboratory using experiments on cadavers. The beginnings of modern neurophysiology began with findings by Fritsch and Hitzig in 1870 that electrical stimulation of the cerebral cortex could produce body movement. Fast forward to today: The invention of Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) created a device that allows scientists to peer into the brain of a live, thinking human being. This type of MRI shows in living color which parts of the brain are active when you perform different tasks or feel certain emotions and sensations. There are two small almond shaped regions in the brain (and I’m seriously resisting the temptation to make a comment about nuts in the brain) called the amygdala which lights up the MRI when someone feels fear. It is believed that the amygdala evolved partially to deal with the increasing complexity of social life. So in theory, the amygdala not only plays a key role in fear responses it has an important impact on our social interactions and social behavior.
Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett is a Distinguished Professor of Psychology at Northeastern University and co-leader of a study at MGH’s Psychiatric Neuroimaging Research Program that investigated this theory. In this study participants were asked to complete standard questionnaires that reported on the size and the intricacies of their social networks. They measured the number of regular contacts each participant maintained, as well the number of social groups to which these contacts belonged. Participants also had an fMRI brain scan to gather information about various brain structures including the volume of the amygdala. Dr. Barrett reported that individuals with larger amygdala reported larger and more complex social networks. This link was observed for both older and younger individuals, and for both men and women. The finding is the first to show a link between the size of a specific brain region and the number and complexity of a person’s relationships. The amygdala is small in comparison to many other brain regions but is thought to play a central role in coordinating our ability to size people up, remember names and faces, and handle a range of social acquaintances.
The amygdala is responsible for generating a range of negative emotions such as sadness, anger and disgust. It becomes less active when people perform non-emotional tasks, which is why keeping yourself busy when you’re sad can make you feel better. This is a clue that this peanut in your head is not the only factor that influences your ability to do something that doesn’t come naturally. The recruiter that is afraid to make a cold-call can use scripts and other techniques to overcome this fear until it becomes a natural part of the thinking process. Understanding that there could be some uncontrollable cause for your hesitancy to network can be the first step to overcoming that issue to building a social network. This is only a small area of your brain and it can be controlled by conscious applied action. Temple Grandin is a perfect example of someone overcoming an even the greater brain wiring difficulty of autism, actually using it to her advantage, gaining a PhD and becoming a prominent author and speaker. When you listen to her speak it seems like the wiring in her brain is enviable and exactly the way it should be.
So regarding this equality concept, it turns out that the only thing any of really us have in common is that we are all different. Even identical twins are not 100% genetically the same. While there is no consensus about the number of DNA combinations needed to accidentally produce identical human beings, there are estimates that it is as high as 1 in 70,000,000,000,000. I recognize that am definitely different. There is something in my brain that is wired to make me shy in a room full of strangers, but I know that I can stand up in front of a room full of people and do an hour-long presentation without flinching. That makes no sense, but something, probably conditioning, makes that happen. You will probably never get an opportunity to know the size of your amygdala, but you can sense your secret fear of networking and either let that control your actions or you can pick up the phone and call somebody. Networking WILL work if you make it happen.