Most of your life takes place in a made-up world. You live in a country whose name and whose borders were made up by people. You allow particular humans to be leaders of that country, such as a president or a member of Congress, by following procedures invented by people long dead, such as elections, and you give them powers that were also made up by people. You acquire food and other goods with something called “money,” which is represented by pieces of paper and metal and even by electromagnetic waves flowing through the air, and which is also completely made up. You actively and willingly participate in this made-up world every day. It is real to you. It’s as real as your own name, which, by the way, was also made up by people.
We all live in a world of social reality that exists only inside our collective human brains. Nothing in physics or chemistry determines that you’re leaving the United States and entering Canada, or that an expanse of water has certain fishing rights, or that a specific arc of the Earth’s orbit around the sun is called January. These things are real to us anyway. Socially real.
The Earth itself, with its rocks and trees and deserts and oceans, is physical reality. Social reality means that we impose new functions on physical things, collectively. We agree, for example, that a particular chunk of Earth is the United States and its carved up into 50 made-up areas called states. And sometimes we disagree. In the Middle East, for example, people kill each other over whether a parcel of land is Israel or Palestine. Even if we don’t explicitly discuss social reality, our actions make it real.
Humans are the only animals on this planet who can simply make things up, agree on them as a group, and they become real. Scientists don’t know for sure how our brains developed the capacity for social reality, but we suspect it has something to do with a suite of abilities that I’ll call the Five Cs: creativity, communication, copying, cooperation, and compression.
First, we need a brain that’s creative. The same creativity that permits us to make art and music also lets us draw a line in the dirt and call it the border of a country. This act requires us to invent some social reality (namely, countries) and impose new functions on an area of land, like citizenship and immigration, that don’t exist in the physical world. Think about that the next time you pass through Customs, or even when you leave one town and enter another.
Next, we need a brain that can communicate efficiently with other brains in order to share ideas, such as the idea of a country and its borders. Efficient communication for us usually includes language. For example, when I tell you that I’m running for office, I don’t have to explain that I’m talking about politics, not exercise, and that I plan to send flyers to voters, make speeches, demolish my opponents in debate, and so forth. My brain conjures these features and so does yours, allowing us to communicate efficiently.
Even if we don’t explicitly discuss social reality, our actions make it real.
We also need brains that learn by reliably copying one another in order to establish laws and norms to live in harmony. We teach these norms to our children and to newcomers, not only to smooth day-to-day interactions but also to help the newcomers survive. Anthropologist Joseph Henrich, in his book “The Secret of Our Success,” describes explorers in the 1800s who ventured into inhospitable, uncharted parts of the world, where many of them died. The expeditions that survived were the ones whose members became acquainted with the Indigenous people in those regions; they taught the explorers what to eat, how to prepare the food, what to wear, and other secrets of survival in the unfamiliar climate. If all individual humans had to figure out everything themselves without copying, our species would be extinct.
We need brains that cooperate on a vast geographical scale. Even the most mundane act, like casting a vote, is possible only because of other humans. Every mail-in ballot was designed and printed by other humans, on paper that was manufactured by other humans, from trees that were cut down by other humans; and when you drop it in the mailbox (constructed from steel by other humans), it’s delivered by other humans and counted by still other humans. Thanks to a shared social reality, all these thousands of people were in the right place at the right time doing the right things for you to participate in the democratic process.
Creativity, communication, copying, and cooperation — four of the five Cs — arose with genetic changes that gave our species a big, complex brain. (These terms are inspired by the evolutionary biologist Kevin Laland’s book, “Darwin’s Unfinished Symphony.”) But to make and maintain social reality, you also need the fifth C, compression, an intricate ability that humans have to a degree not found in any other animal brain. I’ll explain compression first by analogy.
Imagine that you are a police detective investigating a crime by interviewing witnesses. You hear one witness’s story, then another’s, and so on, until you’ve interviewed 20 witnesses. Some of the stories have similarities — the same people involved or the same crime location. Some stories also have differences — who was at fault or what color the getaway car was. From this collection of stories, you can trim down the repetitive parts to create a summary of how the events might have occurred. Later, when the police chief asks you what happened, you can relay that summary efficiently.
A similar thing transpires among neurons in your brain. You might have a single, large neuron (the detective) receiving signals from umpteen little neurons at once (the witnesses) which are firing at various rates. The large neuron doesn’t represent all of the signals from the smaller neurons. It summarizes them, or compresses them, by reducing redundancy. After compression, the large neuron can efficiently pass that summary to other neurons.
This neural process of compression runs at a massive scale throughout your brain and produces an incredible result. It enables to you think abstractly: to see things in terms of their function instead of their physical form. You have the ability to look at a painting by Picasso and perceive that the colorful shapes represent a face. You can view squiggles of ink on paper and grasp that they represent numbers, and moreover, that the numbers represent your spending for the month. Abstraction lets you view objects that look nothing alike — such as a bottle of wine, a bouquet of flowers, and a gold wristwatch — and understand them all as “gifts that celebrate an achievement.” Your brain compresses away the physical differences of these objects and in the process, you understand that they have a similar function. Abstraction also allows us to impose multiple functions on the same physical object. A cup of wine means one thing when your friends shout, “Congratulations!” and another when a priest intones, “Blood of Christ.”
Abstraction, together with the rest of the Five Cs, empowers your large, complex brain to create and share social reality. All animals pay attention to physical things that allow them to survive and thrive. We humans add to the world by collectively imposing new functions on physical things, and we live by them.
Each of the Five Cs is found in other animals to varying extents. Crows, for example, are creative problem-solvers who use twigs as tools. Elephants communicate in low rumbles that can travel for miles. Whales copy one another’s songs. Ants cooperate to find food and defend their nest. Bees use abstraction as they wiggle their bums to tell their hive-mates where to find nectar.
In humans, however, the Five Cs intertwine and reinforce one another, which lets us take things to a whole other level. Songbirds learn their songs from adult tutors. Humans learn not only how to sing but also the social reality of singing, such as which songs are appropriate on holidays. Meerkats teach their offspring to kill by bringing them half-dead prey to practice on. We learn not only about killing but also the difference between accidental killing and murder, and we invent different legal penalties for each. Rats teach one another what’s safe to eat by marking palatable foods with an odor. We learn not only what to eat but also which foods are main courses versus desserts in our culture and which utensils to use.
Chimps, our closest living cousins, have human-like brains that can accomplish each of the Five Cs. However, they don’t have social reality. When chimps select a leader, they don’t vote by making marks on smushed bits of dead trees like we do. They follow the alpha male who will threaten or kill any others who challenge him. Killing is physical reality; most human leaders today stay in power without murdering their rivals. Chimps certainly can observe and copy one another’s practices, like poking a stick into termite holes to pull out tasty snacks, but this learning is based in physical reality — namely, that sticks fit into termite holes. If a troop of chimps agreed that whosoever pulls a particular stick out of the ground becomes king of the jungle, that would be social reality, because it imposes a sovereign function on the stick that goes beyond the physical.
All animals pay attention to physical things that allow them to survive and thrive. We humans add to the world by collectively imposing new functions on physical things, and we live by them.
Social reality is an incredible gift. You can simply make stuff up, like a meme or a tradition or a law, and if other people treat it as real, it becomes real. Sometimes the changes are relatively small, like using the pronoun they to refer to a single person instead of a group. Sometimes the changes are large, like in 1776, when a collection of 13 British colonies vanished and was replaced by the United States of America. And in 1787, a new social reality was shared with the fledgling country in the writing of the United States Constitution. Democracy itself is social reality.
Social reality is also incredibly fragile. It can alter dramatically, in moments, if people simply change their minds. We experienced this in the Great Recession of 2007, when some people in fancy suits decided that a bunch of mortgages had dropped in value, and so they did drop, plunging the world into catastrophe. And every constitutional crisis is a battle of one social reality against another. Democracy may be social reality, but as such, it is vulnerable to being manipulated.
Social reality has limits, of course, when it is constrained by physical reality. We could all agree that flapping our arms will let us soar into the air, but that won’t allow us to fly. We could all say that a deadly virus is harmless, but a virus doesn’t care what we think. Nonetheless, social reality does influence the physical world. A society can collectively agree that a person’s skin tone or private parts make it okay to pay them less or systematically deprive them of opportunities, which over time erodes their physical health. Imagine if one day, we all just decided that enough is enough and eradicated racism and sexism, in the same manner that we eradicated the 13 Colonies in 1776: by changing our collective minds.
Social reality is a superpower that emerges from an ensemble of human brains. We exercise that power every time we treat sparkling diamonds like they have value, every time we idolize a celebrity, every time we vote in an election, and every time we don’t vote in an election. We have more control over reality than we might think. We also have more responsibility for reality than we might realize.
Lisa Feldman Barrett is a University Distinguished Professor of Psychology at Northeastern University, with appointments at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital in Psychiatry and Radiology. She received a National Institutes of Health Director’s Pioneer Award for her groundbreaking research on emotion in the brain, and is the author of “How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain.” She lives outside Boston.