The Neuroscience of Social Innovation

By Mandy Wintink, PhD
(A piece written for the Centre for Social Innovation Magazine in the fall of 2013)

As a neuroscientist, I canʼt help but wonder about what might be going on in the brains of my socially-innovating colleagues at CSI. As a result, I have compiled some ideas about what might actually be happening in your brain...

First, letʼs consider the ability to think innovatively. An angle some researchers took to understand it better was to study people during “Aha!” moments of insight. In one study, researchers were able to capture these Aha! moment in people while they were solving riddles. During the Aha! moment, several areas of the brain were activated, mostly within the frontal cortex. The cortex is a sheath of brain cells that essentially compiles and associates information from lower-level brain areas that feed into the cortex. The cortex is divided into several lobes of functional specialization, the frontal cortex being involved in a variety of higher cognitive processes like creativity, rationality, logic, and planning - all aspects of thinking that are required for innovation. Therefore, it is not surprising that the frontal area becomes active at the moment of insight! One of the areas in particular that was activated is called the precuneus. It addition to it being activated during “Aha!” moments, the precuneus is also activated during creative tasks.

To break this down just a bit further, consider two other areas that were also activated during insight: the left inferior frontal gyrus and the middle frontal gyrus (areas named due to their relative location in the brain). These areas get activated when mental sets are broken down. Forming mental sets is our mindʼs way of making things automatic and routine, to reduce unnecessary thinking. But when we are striving for innovation, they do us little good. Instead, we need to rid ourselves of habitual ways of thinking in exchange for creativity and insight.

But we know that innovative thinking is only one aspect of being a social innovator. At CSI, we have a social mission, in which case, we probably need to have some kind of empathy or compassion for the social issue we are seeking to alleviate. In a very eloquent TED talk, Neuroscientist Dr. Ramachandran describes the brainʼs mirror neurons as a possible neural theory of empathy. Mirror neurons seem to do what they are named after: mirror. They reflect back to the person a sense of sameness. For example, when we perform a certain act (like moving our arm) certain neurons are activated but more interesting is that when that same behaviour is reflected back to us, those same neurons respond, giving them the name mirror neurons. These neurons have been consider possible roots for empathy because they seem to represent the neural code for “I feel ya.”

As social innovators we may also value equality more than our non-social-activist counterparts, which means our insular cortex might be activated. In one study, people were part of a game in which random income was allocated to all members. But, members of the game could choose to re-distribute income more fairly, providing they paid a sum of their own income. Those who chose to pay showed greater activation in their insular cortex. Interestingly, the insula has been shown to be activated when experience “disgust”. This makes me wonder if some of us really do become disgusted by the social issue we seek to resolve.

Another key aspect of social innovators inevitably involves change and action. We readily approach opportunities to make ripples (and sometimes waves) with a sense of adventure and fervor. In psychology we call this novelty-seeking behaviour. The key factor here is the response one elicits to novelty. Some people respond poorly to novelty and exhibit high levels of anxiety when faced with it. Others approach novelty, the unknown, and unfamiliar territory eagerly with little anxiety or stress response activated. The neural system that involves this approach-avoidance behaviour includes the hippocampus (also known for its role in memory) and the amygdala (well know for its role in emotion). Both of those are part of a greater emotional system called the limbic system, one that does well when we exercise regularly and keep our general life stressors down!

So there you have it. A few ways you can consider how your brain might work amidst your socially-innovative endeavors. Your brain is one of your must useful and delicate resources with incredible innovative power. I believe that the more we know about our brains, the better we can use them. And therein lies the mission of my company, the Centre for Applied Neuroscience. Visit us our library at for more brain bits.