The Social Brain

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 shelterThis 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.  


Neuroscience supports a social brain.

When the brain is at rest and not engaged in an active task, (e.g., taking a break between sending two emails), the brain pattern falls into a neural configuration termed the default network. This network becomes activated automatically when the brain is at rest. Whilst this particular finding is not new, what is most intriguing is that this default network looks identical to the brain configuration active during social thinking – when we make sense of other people and ourselves. This has lead to scientists concluding that this default network, whenever the brain has a free moment, prompts and directs us to thinking socially, about other people, their thoughts, feelings and goals. The brain, which constitutes 2% of our body weight but consumes 20% of our body’s energy, uses it limited resources to think socially as opposed to conserving energy by relaxing. The brain has learned through evolution that the best thing to do in spare moments is to prepare for the next social thing. Being social has many benefits; strong social bonds have been shown to be as good for you as quitting smoking and connecting with other people, even in basic ways makes you feel happier.  


Recent research has found that people are increasingly choosing to value superficial material goods over more precious and crucial social relationships. This goes against human nature of being social. For example, do you stay late at work or do you go home to enjoy dinner and some time with your family? At some points in our lives, we will all have faced a similar dilemma where we are made to prioritise one thing over the other. However, today, our relationships seem to be the ones often losing out. We know relationships are crucial, however, as is the case in these dilemmas, they are an increasingly absent part of our lives, alongside happiness levels decreasing, social isolation and depression increasing. In 1965, college freshmen in the USA said ‘starting a family’ and helping others’ were more important life goals than being ‘very well off financially’. In the 1980s, the reverse was true; helping others and starting a family were less important to college freshmen than making money. However, in 2012, college freshmen prioritised being very well off financially at 81%, the highest number in history. Personal relationships are being sacrificed in the pursuit of wealth. However, money does not make you happier.  Endorsing materialism will not add positive value to life but social relationships will. It is important to belong to a group and form relationships such as joining a club, sharing good news or cheering your sport’s team. Social relationships motivate thoughts, actions, and feelings, all part of a flourishing life.

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