Learning Lab

social skills neuroscience

Growing a Social Brain

By Amy Brann

Are you born with social skills?

Human beings are naturally social. To survive from a newborn, we have to rely on others. To have children, we have to form a relationship with a partner. To be successful at work, it usually pays to work as a team. And loneliness is known to have a negative impact on our emotional well-being and long-term health.

Being able to instinctively form social bonds, therefore, seems like an obvious in-built human behaviour.

But is it?

For decades scientists have thought that we have in-built – in other words genetically pre-programmed – brain systems which mean that from the moment we are born we are wired to seek and form social bonds.  But a theory published this month has suggested that it might not be as straightforward as this. And that our drive to form social bonds is learned. Not innate. Not a given. But instead dependant on the particular circumstances of our upbringing and later life experiences.

In other words, we aren’t born with a social brain. We grow one.

Growing a social brain.

More specifically, the authors of this review propose that our motivation to form social bonds is based upon something called “allostasis” – the process by which one person can regulate and change the physiological state of another through their own emotions and actions.

As a newborn, this physiological dependency is very obvious. We need someone else to help us survive at a biological level (warmth, food etc.). But it also continues at a more subtle level throughout adulthood whether the social environments that we live and work in provide a way to buffer the stresses and strains of modern life (e.g. empathy, emotional contagion, stress buffering).

The theory states that by learning and predicting the benefits of these social interactions on our own physiological and emotional state, we, in turn, learn the importance of social bonding, and are driven to seek it out.

From childhood to adulthood.

Importantly, the theory suggests that the social bonding or these “allostatic” experiences that we have as an infant and throughout our life, not only impact our social behaviour as a child and adolescent but also continue to influence and alter our social behaviour all the way through adulthood.

In other words, our social behaviours aren’t necessarily pre-programmed in our genes before we are born. They are pre-programmed by our life experiences and upbringing, both good and bad. This explains why social behaviours vary so much across individuals, and more broadly across cultures.

Social behaviours aren’t fixed in stone.

It also highlights that social skills aren’t anything special. They are skills like any other, which are learned and developed as we grow older.

They are skills which can be nurtured and improved through social interaction, education and training. And incorrectly assuming they are fixed assets which can’t be changed (if desired) is, in fact, the limitation here.

How much is learned, how much is down to our genes?

This theory is proposed by a researcher from Northeastern University called Lisa Feldman Barrett who has previously proposed that emotional expression also isn’t genetically pre-programmed or universal across the globe, as many people believe, but is also learned.

These debates are causing a significant shift in people’s thinking. They raise the important question of how much of who we are, and how much of what we do, is dependant on our life experience and how much is determined by our genes. And although there is likely to be an interaction between the two, these viewpoints are emphasising the importance of experience over genes.

Grow your own self.

What’s for sure is that theories like this are suggesting that it is increasingly incorrect to blame our social and emotional behaviours on our genes.

Instead, we need to realise the power of our past experiences. And embrace the opportunities of our future ones.

Because the fact that our social skills were grown based on our experiences, means that we can continue to shift them. To tweak them. To evolve them further by providing ourselves with the right training and experiences.

And continue to grow our self along the road to success.

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