Tuesday, November 18, 2014


What do we know about how our brain operates in the social world?


Spindle-shaped brain cells, called von Economo neurons—named for the man who first described them—are found only in human beings, great apes and a handful of other notably gregarious creatures -- like elephants.  Von Economo neurons are thin and elongated, with just one dendrite at each end. They are four times bigger than most other brain cells, and even in species that have the cells, they are rare.
(This stuff is from an article in the Smithsonian about a man called John Allman.  The author of the original article is Ingfai Chen and I lifted some whole sentences.)

From von Economo's work, Allman learned that the unusual cells seemed to reside only in the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and one other niche of the human brain, the frontal insula (FI). Brain-scanning studies have established that the ACC and FI are particularly active when people experience emotion. Both areas also seem to be important for "self-monitoring," such as noticing bodily sensations of pain and hunger or recognizing that one has made a mistake. 
By contrast, the frontal insula may play a more specific role in generating social emotions such as empathy, trust, guilt, embarrassment, love—even a sense of humor. According to experiments that measure the workings of various brain regions, the area becomes active when a mother hears a crying baby, for instance, or when someone scrutinizes a face to determine the other person's intentions. The FI is where the brain monitors and reacts to "gut feelings" from bodily sensations or interactions within a social network, Allman says. It's the link between self-monitoring and awareness of others that makes it possible for us to understand the feelings of other people. "The basic proposition that I'm advancing," he says, "is the notion that self-awareness and social awareness are part of the same functioning, and the von Economo cells are part of that."

(When I was a little kid, I had a jigsaw puzzle of the States.  I keep wishing I had one for the named parts of the brain, a snap-together brain.)  Here you go!


William Seeley is another researcher.  He concentrates on pre-frontal or frontal temporal dementia which affect the ACC and FI.  (This is what changed my father, brother and cousin via trauma.)  Patients suffer a breakdown in their character, losing social graces and empathy, turning insensitive, erratic and irresponsible. Marriages and careers implode. Many patients seem to lack physical self-awareness: when diagnosed with other illnesses, they deny having any problems. Brain imaging studies of patients with the dementia have uncovered damage to frontal areas of the brain.


In humans, studies have shown a high percentage of head injuries in prison populations and disorderly people (like expelled students) at large.  The most vivid and most often repeated case was the man working with explosives that drove a tamping rod through the front of his brain.  He survived -- he just wasn’t Mr. Nice Guy anymore.

Trauma or lesion evidence is subtractive.  Most developments that help survival and therefore are “conserved” are additive -- bigger, more, new.  Sometimes they involve a new use of an old capacity, like alphabets coming out of super-simplified outlines of animals which is a hunting skill, an old nubbin of flesh finding a new use.


People live in groups: families, tribes, communities.  Social psychology is what studies the relationships and orderings among those people.  The scientists invent ingenious experiments.

1.  If you put people in a room who collude to say something contrary to reality or not to act in the face of a threat (smoke coming in through a vent), the individual who doesn’t know about this will do what everyone else does, even though his personal evidence is against it.

2.  If you get a group to watch Ronald Reagan giving a speech that in real life caused a lot of laughing, they will have a high opinion of RR.  If you get a similar group to watch the same vid without the laugh-track, they think he’s a little scary.  This is why a laugh-track is added to things that are supposed to make you laugh -- so you’ll react with what you think is a group.


An infant without a family is a dead infant.  A child without a family or with a hostile or dysfunctional family is a suffering child.  An adult without a family, a community, an affiliation,  is a crippled person.  An adult with a family, a community and so on, but whose affiliation with like-minded people is prevented by social pressure and stigma is so bereft of social support that they are in danger of suicide.

Bullying is when one person afflicts another because of aggression meeting vulnerability.  Mobbing is when a whole social group turns on an individual and tries to destroy them.  As a child, I was mobbed for being a crybaby, for being near-sighted (no sports skill), and for being “too smart for my own good.”  Mobbing can be physical (pursuit while throwing rocks) or social.  (Native American literature “flaming” in the Nineties when anyone not “full-blood” was accused of stealing -- often with the piling-on collaboration of white liberals.  Two well-known suicides.)

Narcissism is when one person is centered only on his or her self and relates to others by using them for their own ends.  There is also group narcissism where a gang insists it is better and therefore justified in whatever they do to the out-group.


Affinity groups -- people with a common cause -- become organized (consciously or not) into institutions, mostly related to place (like governmental bodies), economic relationships (ownership, territory), and value systems (religions, schools).  They can control lives by controlling access, knowledge, skill-building, and defense of ownership.  Institutions can operate like individuals: narcissistic, mobbing, hoarding, stigmatizing.  The more crowded the population is, the more hierarchical, rigid and punishing the institutions become.  At an extreme -- which we may have reached by declaring corporations to be zombie people -- an institution and its associated practices can destroy the conditions that make life possible.  Religions are institutions.  


Some feel that the attachment of two people, most often parents of children, is the basic leggo block of all social life.  Certainly, what happens in the first years after birth will determine the individual’s understanding of how to relate to other human beings.  But there is no reason to confuse attachment with sex.  Gore Vidal famously said that the best way to preserve a lifelong bond is to keep sex out of it -- enjoy lots of sex, just not at home and not necessarily hetero.  It worked for him.

Again, other social animals teach us.  Elephants and chimpanzees are like us in needing each other and caring for each other. If economics, politics, or chance destroy dependable parental pair-bonding, the child produced may be cold, uncertain, bullying, and narcissistically affiliated -- always craving power and superiority.  (They might trust a dog.)


Some of my most valued companions are dead and have been for a long time.  They wrote books, they made movies, I knew them when I was a child, or in some other way they got into my head and heart.  They teach me how to demonize myself to seem big and dangerous.  They teach me how to be absurd and leave 'em laughin'.  They teach me how to be invisible, how to be valuable, how to to be taken for granted or not.  I could not go out without them.  They are my brain biota.

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