How Social is Your Brain


Do you join in or prefer to stay home alone? Does your brain have something to do with these preferences? Why do some people easily relate to others, have charm and charisma, tons of empathy, make and keep friends easily? Why do others remain alone? How much do we need to interact with other people to stay healthy? Is it really a preference or are these behaviors born out of fear and anxiety?

I don’t have these answers.

People are fascinating to me. And often annoying, predictable, overwhelming. Although I blog, I do not have a facebook or twitter or instagram or any other social media account. I found them boring, just like small talk and chit chat and parties and hanging out. I care about people. I have a high level of empathy and ability to feel for others. If you tell me your pet died, I will likely tear up. If I see a hundred people posting complaints on facebook, I get overwhelmed quickly. If  I see another meme or picture of your lunch or cat, I might scream out of frustration. I don’t get it. Whatever. You do what entertains you. I’ll stick to reading scientific journals to entertain me.

If I see you at the grocery store, I am not likely to stop and chat. I am not likely to even recognize you out of context. If you are my kid’s teacher, I will only recognize you in the classroom where you belong. I am there to get my groceries and get back home. I am not trying to be rude. I just don’t enjoy the stressful, strained conversation, of “how are you”, “I am fine, you?” “nice weather today” “yes” “sooo” “welll” “ok have a good day”…We aren’t friends, we don’t have to pretend, and we both are here to pick up toilet paper and ground beef and get home before the ice cream melts.

I’ve never enjoyed small talk. Public speaking? Yes. I love getting up on stage and performing, giving a speech or lecture. I understand most people list this as one of their greatest fears, but for me, mingling at a party or running into an acquaintance causes much more anxiety. Why? Is my brain different? – “Social behavior depends critically on context and intention, a sensitivity that arises from the rich interplay between controlled and automatic processing of social information, and a modulation long emphasized within social psychology (Todorov et al. 2006). One way of viewing such modulations is to think of an initial feed-forward sweep of social information processing that is rapid and automatic, followed by cycles of additional processing that are biased by the first, but modulated by top-down effects that may incorporate controlled processing and conscious intent (Cunningham & Zelazo 2007). There are numerous examples at all levels of processing showing how contextual information modulates, or even gates, social information processing. At the sensory perceptual level, information about faces is processed differently depending on context. Thus, a surprised face can be interpreted as looking afraid or looking happy, depending on a preceding sentence (Kim et al. 2004). Afraid and angry faces are interpreted differently depending on whether their gaze is direct or averted (Adams & Kleck 2003). Some context modulates what we counterfactually expect might happen. Thus, in the example of social norm compliance, brain structures associated with strong emotions are activated only when the subject knows that punishment is possible, not when it is known to be impossible (Spitzer et al. 2007). An important and common finding (often utilized as a control condition in imaging studies) is that knowing that a particular event or outcome was intentionally caused by another person leads to a different interpretation than knowing that the event was unintentional or was caused by a computer. Thus, in the case of the negative emotions and anterior cingulate activation induced by social exclusion, this obtains only when the subject is convinced that other people are volitionally excluding him or her, not when the “exclusion” is explained as a technical malfunction of some sort (Eisenberger et al. 2003). What we know about people from their past behavior provides an important context that modulates our responses to, and actions toward, others. In studies of empathy, it was found that our perception of other people’s fairness (from their behavior in an economic game) modulated how much empathy was felt when they were observed to be given painful electric shock, an effect that correlated with activation of the insula (Singer et al. 2006).

Emotional responses can be modulated not only by context, but also volitionally by reinterpreting a situation, or indeed solely by willful control. This is effortful, develops relatively late in childhood and adolescence, and depends on the prefrontal cortex (Ochsner & Gross 2005). Although it is somewhat simplistic, one useful heuristic is that more anterior regions within prefrontal cortex can exert cognitive control over successively posterior regions (Koechlin et al. 2003), an idea consistent with the role of frontal polar cortex (Brodmann’s area 10, the most-anterior part of the brain) in overriding ongoing processing to explore new options in nonstationary environments (Daw et al. 2006). Interestingly, as we reviewed above, frontal polar cortex also appears to be a region that has expanded the most in human evolution (Semendeferi et al. 2001), and it is a region activated when we need to explicitly represent another person’s mind as distinct from our own or the state of the world (Amodio & Frith 2006). Such a role may be critical to social communication, cooperation, and deception, and it may be unique to humans (Saxe 2006).”

Social and emotional responses are too complex to give any answers. My history shaped me, as well as my brain structure. I know I am socially different than most people I meet. I am not sure what drives these differences and if it is worth changing them. I used to try and force myself to be more social, thinking it was unhealthy for me to be alone so much. But these days I am thinking it was unhealthy to force myself to fit into some notion of a social norm that works for others. I’ll look more at this later from the introvert perspective and personality point of view rather than the ‘there’s something wrong with my brain’ point of view. Needs more discussion for sure to see what a healthy spectrum of human differences can cover.


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