Social Pain

A Conversation with Naomi Eisenberger [9.10.14]

When I think of the work on social pain, and showing that some of the same neural regions that are involved in physical pain are involved in social pain, that can be very validating for people. For anyone who's felt the pain of losing somebody or who's felt the hurt feelings that come from being ostracized or bullied, there's something very validating in seeing this scientific work that shows it's not just in our head. It is in our head because it's in our brain. It's not just in our head, there is something biological going on that's interpreting the pain of social rejection as something that really is a painful experience. 

(29:23 minutes)

NAOMI EISENBERGER is a professor in the Social Psychology program at the University of California, Los Angeles. She is director of the Social and Affective Neuroscience laboratory as well as co-director of the Social Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory. 

Naomi Eisenberger's Edge Bio Page


The kinds of questions that I'm interested in have to do with the feelings that come up in our closest social relationships. I've been on both sides of this equation, the negative side and the positive side. I've been very curious about both the painful feelings that we have when we lose our closest social relationships or we feel disconnected from others, as well as the pleasurable feelings that we have when we feel close and connected to those that we love. One of the things that we've been exploring in my Lab at UCLA is where those feelings come from. One way that we've been doing this is by turning to the brain to try to understand those feelings of social closeness or social distance.

We started off on the negative side. I started off with this question of: why do people talk about feeling hurt by social rejection? Why do they talk about the pain that comes up when they feel left out or excluded? It's a very palpable experience. Most people, if you ask them to think back to some very painful event in their life, instead of bringing up something that involves a broken bone they’ll often bring up an experience that involves losing a social relationship or being rejected. We all have these memories of being left out on the school playground or fears of being left out on the school playground. So I was very curious. Where do those fears and where do those feelings come from?

Edge News

'What Should We Be Worried About?' chosen as Penn State Brandywine Common Read Book


News & Events

Penn State Brandywine Common Read "kickoff" event set for Sept. 11

9/5/2014 —Penn State Brandywine will host its first Common Read event of the academic year—a panel discussion titled, "What Is Brandywine Worried About"—on Thursday, Sept. 11, at 11:30 a.m. in the Vairo Library Amphitheatre. Students, faculty and staff are invited to this thought-provoking dialogue, which mirrors the theme of this year’s Common Read book, "What Should We Be Worried About?"

The event will feature six panelists, including Brandywine faculty, staff and students, who will discuss topics that concern each of them in today's world. Topics will range from educational issues to scientific reasoning and beyond.

"What Should We Be Worried About?," edited by John Brockman, is a collection of short essays revealing the planet’s most hidden threats. The essays are written by some of the world’s most influential scientists who were asked to disclose unknown situations that worry them. The result was a book that changes the way people view biology, economics, neuroscience, philosophy, physics, psychology, war, technology and much more.

The campus Common Read was created to provide an opportunity for the entire Brandywine community to participate in knowledgeable conversation about a shared text, allowing the campus to develop a dialogue focused on one central idea or question.

In the event of inclement weather, the panel discussion will be held in the Tomezsko Building, room 103. For more information about this year’s Common Read selection, visit Penn State Brandywine’s Common Read webpage.


Duck Sex, Aesthetic Evolution, and the Origin of Beauty

A Conversation with Richard Prum [9.3.14]

The way nature is—the nature of flowers, the nature of birdsong and bird plumages—implies that subjective experiences are fundamentally important in biology. That the world looks the way it does and is the way it is because of their vital importance as sources of selection in organic diversity, and as a result we need to structure evolutionary biology to recognize the aesthetic, recognize the subjective experience. 


...ducks are one of the few birds that still have a penis. It's a very weird structure. It has an explosive erection, its erection mechanisms are lymphatic instead of vascular, it's stored outside-in inside the cloaca and comes flying out, and they can get very lengthy—up to 40 centimeters, which is over a foot long on a duck that is itself not even a foot long. It's an extraordinary piece of biology. What's going on in these ducks?

In lots of ducks there's forced copulation. It's the equivalent of rape in ducks. In species where there is a lot of forced copulation, females have evolved or co-evolved complex vaginal morphologies that frustrate the intromission or frustrate entry of the penis during forced copulation. For example, the penis of ducks is counter-clockwise coiled and often has ridges or even teeth-like structures on the outside. In this case, in these species, the female has evolved a vagina that has dead end cul-de-sacs, so that if the penis goes down the wrong direction it’ll get bottled up and doesn’t perceive to be closer to the oviduct, or further up the oviduct and closer to ova. And then above the cul-de-sacs, the duck vagina has clockwise coils, so there's literally anti-screw devices that prevent intromission during forced copulation.

(1 hour)

RICHARD PRUM is an evolutionary ornithologist at Yale University, where he is the Curator of Ornithology and Head Curator of Vertebrate Zoology in the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History. 

Richard Prum's Edge Bio Page


Over the last few years I've realized that a large portion of the work that I've been doing on bird color, on birdsong, on the evolution of display behavior, is really about one fundamental and important topic, and that's beauty—the role of beauty in nature and how it evolves. The question I'm asking myself a lot now is: what is beauty and how does it evolve? What are the consequences of beauty and its existence in nature?

There's a long history of people thinking about ornament in nature—those aspects of the body or the behavior of organisms that are attractive, which function in perception of other organisms. Usually we think about this in terms of sexual selection or mate choice, but there's a bunch of other contexts in which it can occur, like flowers attracting pollinators and fruits attracting frugivores, or even the opposite—a rattlesnake or a poisonous butterfly scaring away predators. These are all aspects of the body that function not in the regular way but in perception. 


Latitudes of Acceptance

A Conversation with Matthew D. Lieberman [8.22.14]

I'll tell you about my new favorite idea, which like all new favorite ideas, is really an old idea. This one, from the 1960s, was used only in a couple of studies. It's called "latitude of acceptance". If I want to persuade you, what I need to do is pitch my arguments so that they're in the range of a bubble around your current belief; it's not too far from your current belief, but it's within this bubble. If your belief is that you're really, really anti-guns, let's say, and I want to move you a bit, if I come along and say, "here's the pro-gun position," you're actually going to move further away. Okay? It's outside the bubble of things that I can consider as reasonable.

We all have these latitudes around our beliefs, our values, our attitudes, which teams are ok to root for, and so on, and these bubbles move. They flex. When you're drunk, or when you've had a good meal, or when you're with people you care about versus strangers, these bubbles flex and move in different ways. Getting two groups to work together is about trying to get them to a place where their bubbles overlap, not their ideas, not their beliefs, but the bubbles that surround their ideas. Once you do that, you don't try to get them to go to the other position, you try to get them to see there's some common ground that you don't share, but that you think would not be a crazy position to hold.

(31:34 minutes)

MATTHEW D. LIEBERMAN is a professor of psychology at UCLA. He is the author of Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect.

Matthew D. Lieberman's Edge Bio Page


When people ask me what I’m interested in studying, the first thing I tell them is that I have Attention Deficit Disorder when it comes to science. They start out thinking that I have Attention Deficit Disorder, which I don't, but I do when it comes to science. So I tend to have ideas that range all over the place, and even though I was told early in graduate school to study one thing and study it very, very deeply, that never really worked for me, and I was lucky enough that I didn't have to. 

My ideas tend to all focus on what we call loosely the "social brain." How is it that our brain evolved to make us social? How does it successfully make us social? What are its limitations? How does it lead to a context where we think we understand what's going on, but we're mistaken? That can lead to all sorts of interpersonal issues.



In July, 2013, Edge invited a group of social scientists to participate in an Edge Seminar at Eastover Farm focusing on the state of the art of what the social sciences have to tell us about human nature. The ten speakers were Sendhil Mullainathan, June Gruber Fiery Cushman Rob KurzbanNicholas ChristakisJoshua GreeneLaurie SantosJoshua KnobeDavid PizarroDaniel C. DennettAlso participating were Daniel KahnemanAnne TreismanJennifer Jacquet.


We asked the participants to consider the following questions: 

"What's new in your field of social science in the last year or two, and why should we care?" "Why do we want or need to know about it?" "How does it change our view of human nature?"

And in so doing we also asked them to focus broadly and address the major developments in their field (including but not limited to their own research agenda). The goal: to get new, fresh, and original up-to-date field reports on different areas of social science.

What Big Data Means For Social Science (Sendhil Mullainathan) | The Scientific Study of Positive Emotion (June Gruber) | The Paradox of Automatic Planning (Fiery Cushman) | P-Hacking and the Replication Crisis (Rob Kurzban) | The Science of Social Connections (Nicholas Christakis) | The Role of Brain Imaging in Social Science (Joshua Greene) | What Makes Humans Unique (Laurie Santos) | Experimental Philosophy and the Notion of the Self  (Joshua Knobe) | The Failure of Social and Moral Intuitions (David Pizarro) | The De-Darwinizing of Cultural Change (Daniel C. Dennett)

HeadCon '13: WHAT'S NEW IN SOCIAL SCIENCE was also an experiment in online video designed to capture the dynamic of an Edge seminar, focusing on the interaction of ideas, and of people. The documentary film-maker Jason Wishnow, the pioneer of "TED Talks" during his tenure as director of film and video at TED (2006-2012), helped us develop this new iteration of Edge Video, filming the ten sessions in split-screen with five cameras, presenting each speaker and the surrounding participants from multiple simultaneous camera perspectives.  

We are now pleased to present the program in its entirety, nearly six hours of Edge Video and a downloadable PDF of the 58,000-word transcript.

The great biologist Ernst Mayr (the "Darwin of the 20th Century") once said to me: "Edge is a conversation." And like any conversation, it is evolving. And what a conversation it is! 

(6 hours of video; 58,000 words) 

John BrockmanEditor
Russell WeinbergerAssociate Publisher

Download PDF of Manuscript
 | Continue to Video and Online Text 


The Way We Live Our Lives in Stories

A Conversation with Jonathan Gottschall [7.28.14]

We think of stories as a wildly creative art form but within that creativity and that diversity there is a lot of conformity. Stories are very predictable. No matter where you go in the world, no matter how different people seem, no matter how hard their lives are, people tell stories, universally, and universally the stories are more or less like ours: the same basic human obsessions, and the same basic structure. The structure comes down to: stories have a character, the character has a predicament or a problem—they're always problem-focused—and the character tries to solve the problem. In its most basic terms, that's what a story is—a problem solution narrative. 

(31:38 minutes)

JONATHAN GOTTSCHALL is a Distinguished Research Fellow in the English Department at Washington & Jefferson College. He is the author or editor of six books, including The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human (a New York Times Editor’s Choice Selection and a finalist for the LA Times Book Prize). 

Jonathan Gottschall's Edge Bio Page


There's a big question about what it is that makes people people. What is it that most sets our species apart from every other species? That's the debate that I've been involved in lately.

When we call the species homo sapiens that's an argument in the debate. It's an argument that it is our sapience, our wisdom, our intelligence, or our big brains that most sets our species apart. Other scientists, other philosophers have pointed out that, no, a lot of the time we're really not behaving all that rationally and reasonably. It's our upright posture that sets us apart, or it's our opposable thumb that allows us to do this incredible tool use, or it's our cultural sophistication, or it's the sophistication of language, and so on and so forth. I'm not arguing against any of those things, I’m just arguing that one thing of equal stature has typically been left off of this list, and that’s the way that people live their lives inside stories.


Expanded Curation

A Conversation with Hans Ulrich Obrist [7.2.14]
Introduction by

One of the things that Julia Peyton-Jones and I try to do with the Serpentine Gallery Marathons, on which we've collaborated with Edge many times, is to provide a format that isn't like a normal conference: it takes place over 24 or 48 hours. And it happens in the Serpentine Gallery Pavilion, so this creates a connection between art and architecture. And then one connects to all the other disciplines through the invited speakers. It's a kind of knowledge festival. The marathon is a hybrid. It's a group show, because artists are doing performances, but they're given time and not space. But it's also a conference because there are lectures and presentations. This year's Marathon, which takes place at The Serpentine Gallery the weekend of October 18-20, will be about "Extinction". 

(37:55 minutes)

John Brockman

Hans Ulrich Obrist is Co-director of the Serpentine Galleries, and the initiator of numerous international art projects and exhibitions. One example is the current Serpentine event  (through August 14th), a new durational performance by Marina Abramović entitled "Nothing" in which the artist is in residence for 512 hours.

It is for this kind of signature event that, in 2009, HUO was ranked #1 in Art Review's annual "Art Review Power 100" list of the contemporary art world’s most powerful figures, and #2, #2, #5, in 3 out of the past 4 years. It is a measure of his unique stature, that in today's contemporary art world, one that often seems dominated by money, HUO, who, in the 25 years I've known him, has never mentioned money, prices, or the art market, is arguably the contemporary art world's most influential figure.

"I don't talk about the art market", he explains, "as I don't know much about it. It's not part of my work. I have always worked on public exhibitions towards the end of making the best work accessible for everyone. As Gilbert and George say, 'art for all'."

What interests him is the exhibition as ritual. "A crowd of people is not a crowd but rather a number of individuals gathered in a space who are, contra the experience of an opera or a theatrical performance, not subject to a collective control of attention....Attention is neither monopolized nor homogenized. The exhibition is a very democratic and liberal ritual where the viewer decides the duration of his or her stay. "

I recently visited HUO at his office at the Serpentine Gallery to talk about the forthcoming "Marathon" on "Extinctions," an event that bridges the humanities and the sciences alike. "The spectre of extinction looms over the ways in which we understand our being in the world today," he says. "In response, artists and writers embed these concerns into the products of their creative endeavours. Environmental degradation, genocide, atomic weapons, threats to small, isolated communities, threats to languages, global warming economics and extinction, catastrophes in nature, life wiped out by disease and hunger—the constellation of topics around extinction is ever-expansive and as urgent now as ever before".

Some of the questions on the agenda for the participants to explore include "What is extinction and what are we losing? How do we understand loss and endings? How can an individual understand themselves in relation to a collective responsibility? What is the artist’s role in responding to mass extinction? What happens after the end has come and gone? How can artists, scientists and thinkers imagine new visions of the future? How has the spectre of extinction come to inform artistic and literary practice?" Edge once again plans to be there, collaborating with HUO as in previous marathon events: Maps For The 20th CenturyInformation GardensFormulae For The 21st CenturyTable-Top Experiments Marathon. 

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