In the 1990s the British evolutionary anthropologist Robin Dunbar championed an idea known as the Social Brain Hypothesis. He found that mammals who lived in the largest social groups often had the largest neocortex to brain ratio.
But therein lies a chicken-and-egg problem. How do we know whether it’s the social networks that have promoted an increase in neocortical growth or whether that same expansion of gray matter simply allowed these social networks to expand? A new study published in the November 4th edition of Science addressed this question by housing monkeys in different sized groups to find out if their neocortical gray matter increased as the number of individuals grew. A team of neuroscientists led by Jérôme Sallet and Matthew Rushworth of the University of Oxford in England randomly assigned 34 rhesus macaques to separate social groups ranging in size from 1 to 7. The researchers conducted magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans on 23 of the monkey’s brain structures both before they were placed into their various groups and again after more than a year had passed.
Their analysis revealed a clear, linear relationship between the size of a monkey’s social network and an increase of neocortical gray matter in regions involved with social cognition (such as the mid-superior temporal sulcus, rostral prefrontal cortex as well as the frontal and temporal cortex). Previous research has shown that these regions are important for a variety of social behaviors, such as interpreting facial expressions or physical gestures, “theory of mind,” and predicting the behavior of other group members. Overall the monkeys demonstrated an expansion of gray matter ranging from 3-8% (depending on the brain region) for each additional member of their social network. In other words, monkeys that lived in the most socially complex group had an average increase of 20% more neocortical growth than monkeys housed individually.
“Social network size, therefore, contributes to changes both in brain structure and function,” said Sallet. “Individual variation in brain anatomy should have implications for an individual’s success within the social group.” Crucially, these individual differences remained consistent for more than four months. Certain individuals happened to be better suited for dealing with the demands of larger social groups, but they had to first live in that environment before their natural abilities could emerge.
It is this capacity that was the focus of a study published last month in Proceedings of the Royal Society that investigated the biological variability in another form of social behavior: online social networking. In a collaboration between neuroscientists and anthropologists led by Ryota Kanai and Geraint Rees from the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience at University College London, the researchers investigated social media users, specifically Facebook, for the same kinds of biological variation that distinguished certain social monkeys over others.
By comparing the differences between individuals and the size of their online network of friends, real-world friends, as well as the size of neocortical brain regions involved in social behavior, the researchers were able to identify a strong correlation between the volume of three neocortical regions and the number of that individual’s Facebook friends. Crucially, these brain regions (the right superior temporal sulcus, left middle temporal gyrus, and entorhinal cortex, areas previously implicated in social perception and associative memory) had no relationship to the real-world social networks of these individuals. There was only one area, the amygdala, that showed a correlation between gray matter density and both forms of social networking. The other brain regions seemed to be, quite literally, wired for the web.
Sallet, J., Mars, R., Noonan, M., Andersson, J., O’Reilly, J., Jbabdi, S., Croxson, P., Jenkinson, M., Miller, K., & Rushworth, M. (2011). Social Network Size Affects Neural Circuits in Macaques, Science 334 (6056), 697-700. DOI: