Lonely? Or Lots Of Friends? Brain Structure Varies With Social Connectivity, Scientists Find
Having a wide circle of friends and thriving in social situations might mean you have more white-matter pathways in your brain. Maybe those white-matter pathways — the nerve fibers that connect the different regions of the brain — are one factor that makes it easier to function in social settings, or maybe spending lots of time in social situations creates more of those pathways.
Either way, a new study has found that certain regions of the brain are bigger and better connected in people with a large network of friends and good social skills than in people with fewer friends, according to research presented at Neuroscience 2013, the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience in San Diego..
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"We're interested in how your brain is able to allow you to navigate in complex social environments," said lead researcher Maryann Noonan, a neuroscientist at Oxford University. "Basically, how many friends can your brain handle?"
The research suggests a connection between social interaction and brain structure, but the order in which the connections happen in people has not yet been determined.
"It's unknown whether their brains were predisposed to social engagements or whether larger social networks prompted brain development," Noonan wrote in the abstract of the research, which was conducted at the Montreal Neurological Institute. The research team scanned the brains of 18 participants and determined the size of their social network based on the number of social interactions they reported during the past month.
The researchers also assessed the connectivity of different parts of the brain, particularly those connected through the Default Mode Network, which is thought to be involved in coordinating behavior within a social context.
"Human beings are naturally social creatures," Noonan said. "Yet we know surprisingly little about how the brain manages our behavior within our increasingly complex social lives — or which parts of the brain falter when such behavior breaks down in conditions such as autism and schizophrenia."
The mysteries of the social network and the human need for social connection are explored in a new book, Social: Why Our Brains are Wired To Connect, by Matthew Leiberman, director of the UCLA Social Cognitive Neuroscience laboratory.
"It's a book about relationships and why relationships are a central — though increasingly absent — part of a flourishing life," according to an article in The Atlantic magazine.
Lieberman sees the brain as the center of the social self with social thinking its primary purpose, according to The Atlantic.
Lieberman draws on psychology and neuroscience research to confirm Aristotle's assertion in his Politics: "Man is by nature a social animal ... Anyone who either cannot lead the common life or is so self-sufficient as not to need to, and therefore does not partake of society, is either a beast or a god," The Atlantic article said.
In 2012, freshmen prioritizing being "very well-off financially" peaked at 81 percent, the highest that number has been in the the American Freshman Survey of college students, according to The Atlantic.
"My gut says making more money will make me happier," Lieberman wrote in his book, "but my gut is wrong ... The more individuals endorse materialism as a positive life value, the less happy they are with are with their lives."
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