Our brains are obsessed with being social

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New research demonstrates how our brains consolidate new social information—even during rest.

Our brains are obsessed with being social even when we’re not in social situations. The study, published in Cerebral Cortex, finds that the brain may engage in social encoding (learning from a recent social situation) even when it’s at rest. The findings demonstrate for the first time how two regions of the brain concerned with socializing experience increased connectivity during rest after encountering new social information.

What the researchers say: The study examines the role of two brain regions, the medial prefrontal cortex and tempoparietal junction, which are integral to our ability to evaluate other people’s personalities, mental states and intentions. Previous research has found that these two regions tend to experience a spontaneous spike in connectivity during rest and as such, are considered part of the brain’s default network (i.e. they’re always ‘on’). The present research team examined if these two regions consolidate social information during rest.

“We’ve known for a while that brain regions associated with social thinking engage during rest, but we really never understood why. This study suggests an important reason for this pattern: engaging these regions during rest may help us learn about our social environment,” said the lead author.

For the study, 19 participants were asked to complete socially-related and non-socially related tasks while undergoing an fMRI scan. Before encoding, they had a baseline rest scan and after each task, a resting state scan of 8.4 minutes, where they could think about anything, as long as they stayed awake.

For the social encoding task, participants were asked to look at a photograph of a person and were given their job title such as “doctor” and two traits used to describe the individual such as “educated, sincere.” They were then prompted to evaluate the impression of the person by rating the person’s warmth and competence on a scale of 1 to 100.

The non-social encoding task was similar only participants were presented with photographs of a location that was paired with two traits used to describe it upon which they were asked to evaluate the place on warmth and pleasantness.

Some of the participants performed the social task first while others the non-social one. Right after the scan, participants completed a surprise, associative memory test to assess if they could accurately identify photos of the persons or places, and their respective set of traits.

The findings revealed that during the rest period after social learning, there was an increase in connectivity between the medial prefrontal cortex and tempoparietal junction regions. The greater the connectivity between these two default network regions, the higher the levels of social memory performance.

The researchers found that participants who did the social task first first maintained higher levels of connectivity between these two brain regions during the post social task rest and during the non-social rest period; however, this was not the case for those who were presented with the non-social task first.

The study demonstrates that the brain consolidates social information as soon as it can rest. “When our mind has a break, we prioritize what we learn about our social environment,” concluded the researchers.

So, what? Yet more proof that we are primarily social animals, even at rest. We need to socialize and in fact almost every action we take is in some way geared towards learning about or improving our social environment (whatever that means for each of us individually).

What now? Whenever our working conditions or our living arrangements are in line with our neurogenetic design specs we are happier, more fulfilled and more productive. Allowing us to interact with each other in a human way (in an uncrowded, relaxed atmosphere with people we believe are part of our support network) should be part of the design of every workspace and the rationale for every leadership style. From this success and profitability arises.