The Social Brain: Internal Evidence of an External World
Throughout the lifespan, we depend on others to survive. From our earliest experiences of infancy, where our physical health is partially dependent on the emotional attunement of our caregivers (Vaughn, 2013), to our final days of life, where psychologist Erik Erikson posited that our sense of integrity was based on interpersonal relationships (Erikson, 1993), our wellness is connected to those around us. This social nature of our existence is evidenced in several important areas within the human brain.
Even the most primitive areas of the human brain are built for social interaction. Within the cortex, the orbital medial prefrontal area coordinates sensory and social information (Cozolino, 2014). It connects our perceptions with our emotions, and it uses our feelings to inform our social interactions. Similarly, the insula cortex allows us to connect “what’s happening inside our bodies” with our observations of the outside world (Cozolino, 2014). This area helps us react to other peoples’ faces, body language, and subtle cues. Cozolino (2014) also describes a third area, the cingulate cortex, which associates sensory with emotional information. This area is one of the most basic centers for “communication between mother and child” and demonstrates the evolutionary need for “long-term social and emotional bonds” (Cozolino, 2014).
Later in his book, Cozolino (2014) reviews the evolutionary and social nature of regulatory systems, or networks within the brain that balance “approach and avoidance…, excitation and inhibition…, [and the] fight and flight responses.” The fear regulation system, which controls how we approach or avoid frightening stimuli, is partially based on our attachment history and early caregiver relationships (Cozolino, 2014). This system exemplifies the connection between our internal and external worlds. The fear regulation system, which functions to preserve our physical health, survival, and well-being, is strongly influenced by early, external relations with others.
A second system, the social motivation system, describes the neurobiological rewards associated with human interactions. Bonding and attachment relationships release neurochemicals like oxytocin, peptides, and vasopressin (Cozolino, 2014). Dopamine is released when we feel attracted to others (Cozolino, 2014). And when we feel more than just a little attracted, our sex drive kicks in and releases androgens and estrogens (Cozolino, 2014). All of these chemicals are related to the reward, decreased physical pain, and pleasure associated with social connection (Cozolino, 2014). In short, our brains want us to spend time with supportive others.
Farmer (2009) describes several other brain areas that connect our internal, private world with the external, social world around us. The anterior cingulate gyrus is an emotional center that is closely related to maternal behavior, nursing, and play (Farmer, 2009). Complex systems of mirror neurons, which are found throughout the brain, “make it possible for us to learn… merely by watching others” (Farmer, 2009). These mirror neuron systems also help humans understand and anticipate the intentions of others. Socially, these systems help us interact and connect. Evolutionarily, these systems help us learn and survive.
Today, the developed world is more social than ever. With an iPhone, laptop, or other mobile device almost constantly within an arm’s reach, communication is easy, immediate, and constant. Fifty years ago, it would take weeks to interact with someone on the other side of our planet. Today, sending a text message or Skype request takes seconds.
From a neuroscience perspective, our modern world’s emphasis on communication and socialization isn’t inherently bad; our brains are, in fact, built to be social. However, the areas and systems described above were developed for face-to-face, “live” experiences of socialization. The feeling of holding or responding to one’s child, for example. The experience of looking someone in the eye and interpreting their gaze. As we become increasingly dependent on technology for communication, these experiences and real-world cues will start to disappear. Our social brains will begin to lose the interpersonal signals and bits of information they have evolved and learned to perceive. As backlit screens continue to replace humans’ faces, our social brains may begin to feel isolated.
Cozolino, L. (2014). The neuroscience of human relationships: Attachment and the developing social brain (2nd edition). New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.
Erikson, E. (1993). Childhood and society. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company.
Farmer, R.L. (2009). Neuroscience and social work practice: The missing link. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
Vaughn, M. G., DeLisi, M., & Matto, H. C. (2014). Human behavior: A cell to society approach. Hoboken: N.J.: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.