The Social Brain

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The social brain according to Adolphs (1999). Green: Ventromedial prefrontal cortex. Red: amygdala. Blue: right somatosensory cortex. Purple: insula. Other areas mentioned by Adolphs (1999) include the cingulate cortices; visual association areas in temporal lobes; and structures in hypothalamus, thalamus, and brainstem. Figure courtesy of Ralph Adolphs.


It may seem paradoxical, but the idea of “the social brain” could be said to derive from western individualism. People in segmental societies have collectivized perceptions of selfhood which are intrinsically social. The western concept of the individual as an “essentially asocial moral being” (Dumont, 1986) is a relatively late product of state formation (Turner, 1982). Western cognitivism still tends to portray the brain as a standalone PC with certain areas dedicated to social functions. The default assumption of the “social brain” concept is a non-social brain.

Adolphs (1999), however, points out that according to the social intelligence hypothesis, brain expansion in primates (lemurs, monkeys,apes, and humans) has been driven by selection pressure for increased social expertise. If that is the case, then any brain structure which is enlarged in primates – relative to other mammals of comparable size – is likely to have one or more social functions. There is probably no part of the brain which is not involved to some degree in social interactions, with the possible exception of certain parietal areas concerned with spatial relationships (Turner & Whitehead, 2008). Even our most basic perceptual processes are socially conditioned from earliest infancy (ibid; Gratier & Trevarthen, 2008; Chiao et al., 2008).

Nevertheless, certain areas of the brain have attracted research attention because of their important social functions. It is these that Adolphs discusses in his earlier (1999) and later (2003) reviews of the social brain, and the list of “social” areas is likely to get longer as research progresses.

The term “social brain” was coined by Leslie Brothers (1990, 1997) but the concept has roots going back more than fifty years. A link between social complexity and brain expansion in primates was first postulated by two pharmacologists from Bristol University, Michael Chance and Allan Mead (1953), though the social intelligence hypothesis – with its implications of Machiavellian cunning – took shape in the work of Alison Jolly (1966) and Nicholas Humphrey (1976).

The political complexities of primate social life include the formation of mutually supportive alliances and coalitions between individuals, and a good deal of cooperative, manipulative, and apparently deceptive behaviour. The implied “social intelligence” led primatologists such as Hans Kummer (1967) and Frans de Waal (1982) to question the extent to which baboons and apes were aware of their own and others’ mental states, including intentions, knowledge, and beliefs (see self/otherconsciousness ). The term “theory of mind” first appeared in the classic paper “Does the chimpanzee have a theory of mind?” (Premack & Woodruff, 1978).

The work of Leslie Brothers led to the union of cognitive neuroscience and social psychology, to create the new subdisciplines of social cognitive neuroscience (Singer, Wolpert & Frith, 2004) and neural hermeneutics (Frith, 2003). Quite independently, anthropological interest in the brain as a social organ (Turner & Turner, 1983) led to the development of anthropological neuroscience in Europe (Roepstorff, 2001; Turner, 2002; Turner & Whitehead, 2008; Whitehead, 2008a, b), whilst the union of cultural psychology and neuroscience in America gave rise to the further subdiscipline of cultural neuroscience (Chiao & Ambady, 2007; Chiao et al., 2008).


Suggested reading on the social brain

Maynard Smith, J., Szäthmáry, E. (1995) The Major Transitions in Evolution (Oxford: W.H. Freeman)

Adolphs, R. (2003) ‘Cognitive neuroscience of human social behaviour’, Nature Reviews Neuroscience; 4: 165-78.

Byrne, R. & Whiten, A., eds. (1988), Machiavellian Intelligence: Social Expertise and the Evolution of Intellect in Monkeys, Apes, and Humans (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

Whiten, A. & Byrne, R., eds. (1997), Machiavellian Intelligence II: Extensions and Evaluations (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press)

Damasio, A.R. (1994), Descartes' Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain (New York: Putnam)

Frith, C.D. (2007), Making up the Mind: How the Brain Creates our Mental World (Oxford: Blackwell).

Frith, C.D. & Wolpert, D.M., eds. (2004), The Neuroscience of Social Interaction: Decoding, Imitating, and Influencing the Actions of Others (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

Chiao, J.Y., Li, Z. & Harada, T. (2008), ‘Cultural neuroscience of consciousness: from visual perception to self-awareness’, Journal of Consciousness Studies; 15(10/11): 58-69.

Turner, R. & Whitehead, C. (2008), ‘How collective representations can change the structure of the brain’, Journal of Consciousness Studies; 15 (10/11): 43-57. Download PDF_TOP

Whitehead, C. (2008), ‘“You do an empirical experiment and you get an empirical result. What can any anthropologist tell me that could change that?” Editor’s introduction’, Journal of Consciousness Studies; 15 (10/11): 7-41. Download PDF_TOP

Whitehead, C. (2008) ‘The neural correlates of work and play: what brain imaging and animal cartoons can tell us about social displays, self-consciousness, and the evolution of the human brain’: Journal of Consciousness Studies; 15 (10/11): 93-121.Download PDF_TOP

The four papers above are also available as book chapters in:
Whitehead, C., ed. (2008), The Origin of Consciousness in the Social World (Exeter: Imprint Academic)


Copyright © 2005 Charles Whitehead. All rights reserved.

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