December 26, 2010
Big Amygdala Means Bigger Social Network

Does a person with a long Facebook friend list have a bigger amygdala on average? Do the people voted most popular in high school also have big amygdalas? Researchers find a positive correlation between amygdala size on a brain scan and the size and complexity of one's social network.

"We know that primates who live in larger social groups have a larger amygdala, even when controlling for overall brain size and body size," says Lisa Feldman Barrett, PhD, of the Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) Psychiatric Neuroimaging Research Program and a Distinguished Professor of Psychology at Northeastern University, who led the study. "We considered a single primate species, humans, and found that the amygdala volume positively correlated with the size and complexity of social networks in adult humans."

The researchers also performed an exploratory analysis of all the subcortical structures within the brain and found no compelling evidence of a similar relationship between any other subcortical structure and the social life of humans. The volume of the amygdala was not related to other social variables in the life of humans such as life support or social satisfaction.

"This link between amygdala size and social network size and complexity was observed for both older and younger individuals and for both men and women," says Bradford C. Dickerson, MD, of the MGH Department of Neurology and the Martinos Center for Biomedical Research. "This link was specific to the amygdala, because social network size and complexity were not associated with the size of other brain structures." Dickerson is an associate professor of Neurology at Harvard Medical School, and co-led the study with Dr. Barrett.

This is the very same amygdala that when dysfunctional can cause fearlessness. So I wonder: Do people build up large social networks as a protection mechanism? Do they want lots of friends because back when our ancestors lived in paleolithic tribes one needed friends as allies for protection? Does a fearless person have fewer friends?

What I also wonder: Will prospective parents, empowered with the ability to genetically engineer their offspring, opt to give them really big amygdalas? Will future humans be super-socializers, maintainers of massive networks of social and business relationships?

Ask yourself: If you could give your present or future kids a greater ability and propensity to maintain social networks would you?

Share |      Randall Parker, 2010 December 26 09:22 PM  Brain Society

Anonymous.78 said at December 27, 2010 5:53 PM:

[FuturePundit says: I added the bottom byte of your IP address to make your pseudonym unique. Next time you use Anonymous I'll just delete it. Use a unique pseudonym]

My life: Fearless and few friends.

Randall Parker said at December 27, 2010 6:23 PM:

The explanation I get for use of pseudonyms is that people are fearful. What would be the reason for a fearless person to use Anonymous as their name?

BTW, if you do not use a different pseudonym I will delete your next comment. At least make it unique.

ASPIRANT said at December 28, 2010 4:16 PM:

There's a strong argument to be made for anonymity. Being unable to "look at the source" of something someone says, you instead have to deal with their ideas directly. There is no option to dismiss something someone says just because of your previous impressions of them. People who post anonymously don't have to deal with the cliquey-ness and side-taking that tends to develop even in fairly serious venues like this.

Whenever I post anonymously, it's because I want to avoid social drama and the biases of others. Maybe a fearless anonymous has no fear of his idea being shot down, and so feels no need to try to ingratiate himself to others. Or maybe a non-anonymous writer's compulsion to be recognized is borne of a fear of ostracism.

It seems kind of counter-intuitive to me that fearless individuals would have fewer friends. Being fearless means that you have no fear of rejection or making a fool of oneself. Many people I know have very few friends because of that. To be able to launch into a social situation, and come away having talked to and impressed many people seems daunting to them. The woman in the study you linked lacked the hyper aroused, fight-or-flight kind of fear obviously. But maybe the fear I'm considering has a different mechanism.

ASPIRANT said at December 28, 2010 4:19 PM:

Also, I would give my children the ability to form deep relationships with a few people, if I had to choose anything. I have many family members who seem to have tons of friends, but can't even get into a conversation with anyone that doesn't lead to some self-serving conclusion. I have never had what I consider a "real" conversation with them at all, if that makes any sense.

ASPIRANT said at December 28, 2010 4:27 PM:

Sorry for the multiple posts, but I wanted to add that the reason I would do that is because I think people like that are happier in general. Open people may seem sad more often, but I think that's because they don't feel the need to hide it. They don't see a problem with showing weakness because they have tested faith in the few people they let be their friends. They don't have this deep-seeded (and probably correct) feeling that their friends are ultimately their competitors.

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