We may dismiss Facebook, Instagram and gossip as a waste of time, and they can be when they are put to the wrong use. However, these forms of social interaction also serve the function of a basic human need — social connection. For humans, social connection is as important to our survival as food, water and shelter. This predisposition of humans to be social explains our desire to constantly interact and surround ourselves with others. For example, we turn to smartphones and social media to achieve this online and virtually. So it is no surprise that being socially connected to others is part of our brain’s operating system that makes human beings who they are.
Compared to other primates and mammals, the human brain and in particular the neocortex — the outer layer of the brain — is considerably larger. This area of the brain is involved in higher level cognition, such as social behaviour, language, emotion regulation and empathy (the ability to understand the feelings and intentions of others). The prime functions of this area support the notion of humans being biologically hard-wired for interacting with others. Our brain is specifically built to be social, however, it seems that whilst we know social connections are important to flourish, society has become more and more individualistic with these social connections dissolving.
Evolutionary scientists have been baffled and continue to face the question of how and why the brain got to be as large as it is today. As is the case with other animals, brain size tends to increase with body size. This explains why elephants possess much larger brains in comparison to mice with considerably smaller ones. However, the exception to this is human beings. Given the size of our bodies, our brains should be much smaller. They should not be the largest in the animal kingdom relative to body size which they are. One answer is that the strongest predictor of a species’ brain size is the size of its social group. In this case, humans beings have such large brains due to their socialisation. In fact, the first ancestor of humans to emerge with brains as large as ours appeared about 600,000-700,000 years ago. What made this group of ancestors so interesting is that they were the first species to have division of labour. This is synonymous with society today, as individuals back then worked together to hunt and had central campsites, just as we today, work together in companies and other social environments.