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An Active Social Life Can Rewire Your Brain

Or is it the other way around?
Photo via Flickr

Scientists have a long-held hunch that socializing with other humans makes your brain bigger. Trouble is, no one's been able to prove that conclusively. Neuroscientists have a chicken and egg problem on their hands: It's very hard to know if certain people are hardwired to be a affable chaps and others lone wolves, or if the brain changes over time based on our social interactions with others.

This week at Neuroscience 2013, the annual Society of Neuroscientists conference, scientists presented research suggesting the latter is true. Researchers from Oxford University and the Montreal Neurological Institute surveyed 18 people about their social life, and found that those with a larger social network showed three regions of the brain that were bigger and better connected to other parts of the mind.


The research is preliminary, but it reflects the findings of past studies. Indeed, scientists have believed for years that human beings’ social nature is what made our brains grow so large relative to our body size.

The study also unleashes the question of what it would mean for society if social status equates to more brainpower. We haven't heard the last of this conversation. The researchers went as far as to conclude that “these studies may help explain why position in social hierarchies strongly influences decision-making, motivation, and altruism, as well as physical and mental health. Understanding social decision-making and social ladders may also aid strategies to enhance cooperation."

In a similar realm, recent research from the University of Illinois found that growing up poor can damage the brain—but there again the devil is in the details. For one it's not the poverty itself but the consequential stress that affects the mind. For two, scientists only go as far as concluding there’s a "relationship" between a child's socioeconomic background and their brain makeup as an adult—not a direct causation.

Still, the societal implications of that study are similar to the one presented this week. If your social background shapes your mental prowess, it's harder to “get ahead.” That association speaks volumes about a society where increasingly, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.

If stress is the villain in the story of mental health, socialization is the shining hero. Continuous studies show it's one of the strongest influences on the brain—for humans and other animals. Interestingly, as the Atlantic pointed out, the human brain seems to be social by default. Whenever we have down time and let the mind rest, the Atlantic reported, the brain defaults to a state "that it looks almost identical to another brain configuration—the one used for social thinking or 'making sense of other people.'”

The takeaway: It's all food for thought. There's a dangerous temptation to explain away everything about humans and society by analyzing the brain. But what's happening between our ears isn't the only key to understanding our nature. It goes back to the chicken and egg scenario. If your socioeconomic background and life experience changes your brain, nature versus nurture isn't an either/or question at all; the two are intractably linked.