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October 23, 2011

The Neuroanatomy Behind Sociability


The Neuroanatomy Behind Sociability

People, like all primates, are inherently social animals. We live, work, and play together. We are defined by our relationships. However, individuals have varying degrees of sociability. The size and shape of our social networks varies from person to person. There are social butterflies - people who seem to know someone wherever they go. Who boast large numbers of contacts and network effortlessly. On the other end of the spectrum, there are the wallflowers - those with more modest social networks, who interact mainly with a select handful of people. A person's sociability - whether they are a social butterfly, or a wallflower, or somewhere in between - seems innate. It seems to be a fundamental characteristic of a person.

As a strong introvert, I've often wondered, what makes one person a social butterfly and another a wallflower? What's the difference between a person with 5 friends and person with 50?

According to an article published in the journal Nature Neuroscience in February, the answer lies in part with the Amygdala. Researchers took 58 healthy men and women ages 19 to 83 and measured both the size and complexity of the subjects' social networks using something called the Social Network Index. The results of the analysis were then compared with the relative size of the subjects' amygdalas. There was significant correlation. The authors state,

"We found that amygdala volume correlates with the size and complexity of social networks in adult humans. An exploratory analysis of subcortical structures did not find strong evidence for similar relationships with any other structure, but there were associations between social network variables and cortical thickness in three cortical areas, two of them with amygdala connectivity. These findings indicate that the amygdala is important in social behavior."

In addition, while amygdala volume was found to be correlated specifically with social network size, "amygdala volume did not relate to other measures of social functioning such as perceived social support and life satisfaction." This is important because it means that the findings of correlation are more specific than social functioning as a whole.

These results were not entirely surprising to the researchers. Previous studies in other (nonhuman) primates "strongly support a link between amygdala volume and social network size and social behavior." This latest research is, however, the first study to show correlation within a certain species and between individuals of that species.

So, does this mean that a person's social fate is sealed? That their social network size was dictated at conception along with eye color? Luckily, the answer is no; at least not entirely. Within the study, there were individuals with small amygdalas and enviable social networks as well as individuals with larger amygdalas, yet smaller network sizes. In addition, the results are corollary, and say nothing about social learning or nurture (as opposed to nature). (So, those Dale Carnegie books might prove useful yet!)

The authors' analysis of the study does not seem very focused on the individual. The important thing appears to be the trend - the statistical correlation. The authors hold that the findings are important because they support an evolutionary view called the 'social brain hypothesis'. The social brain hypothesis states that mammals evolved larger brains in part as a response to selective pressures to be more social, which required greater processing capacity. The authors also expect these results to act as preliminary data in future studies looking at larger brain networks that dictate social network size and complexity.

In spite of these more lofty applications, the individual correlation still remains. So, the next time you assess your Facebook friend quota, whether its admirable, or not so much, remember, it might simply reflect your respective amygdala.
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