Socializing takes serious amounts of brain power


How much brain power does it really take to socialize?  An article by Ybarra and Winkielman (2012) points out the many higher order brain functions that are required to skillfully interact with other people.  Learning to interact skillfully can be challenging for any of us, and perhaps it is no wonder that so many psychiatric and brain developmental disorders can adversely affect one’s ability to interact socially.

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When we think of activities that need a lot of brain power, we often think of solitary intellectual activities, such as solving math problems, writing, or composing music.  We may not realize how much brain power it takes to skillfully engage in social interactions, and to form and maintain relationships.  When I refer to social interactions, I’m not talking so much about the routine, “Hi, how are you today?” greetings that we may say as we pass each other in the hall—for most of us, these are reflexive and relatively effortless.  Instead, what I’m referring to is the more in depth, more unpredictable social interactions that are the essential core of real relationships.  In order to really relate well to another person, we ideally need to be aware of and express our own thoughts and feelings, through various modes of expression (speech, tone of voice, eye contact, facial expression, body posture, etc) and simultaneously be attuned to and perceiving the other person’s speech and expressed thoughts and emotions, again integrating various sensory modalities and higher order processing of cognitive and emotional information.  To do this, we need to be consistently aware and adapting in this complex, unpredictable situation.  This demands an unusually high level of moment-to-moment awareness and mindfulness, both of the variations in our own inner state and, simultaneously, the variations in the state and expressions of our partner.  And interactions within larger groups can quickly become exponentially more complex.  Solitary thinking, or interacting with in-animate, and more predictable objects, whether a basketball or a computer, as hard as those skills are, seem simpler in comparison, when you begin to consider it.  Given the complexity and demands of social interactions, and the level of integrated brain power involved, is it any wonder that people’s social behaviors are vulnerable to being disrupted in a variety of situations or neurodevelopmental disorders?   And is it any wonder that most of us need some “downtime” to ourselves?  A very interesting article by Ybarra O and Winkielman P (2012) just came out on the role of the brain’s executive functions in the ability to flexibly engage in social interactions:

As the article points out, executive functions of the brain, which are largely mediated by the brain’s frontal lobe (also reviewed in Miller EK and Wallis JD 2009 Encyclopedia of Neuroscience 4:99-104), include working memory and updating of those working memories; attention and cognitive control; and inhibition.  Ybarra and Winkielman do a really nice job of summarizing the cognitive challenges of engaging in social interactions, and some of the brain functions that are required.  For example, to quote from the first two lines of the abstract of the article…

“A successful social interaction often requires on-line and active construction of an ever-changing mental-model of another person’s beliefs, expectations, emotions, and desires.  It also requires the ability to maintain focus, problem-solve, and flexibly pursue goals in a distraction-rich environment, as well as the ability to take-turns and inhibit inappropriate behaviors.” (Ybarra and Winkielman 2012)

The more you consider the level of brain power involved in skillful social interactions, it really is amazing that any of us is able to do it!  I think interacting with others well is a challenge for all of us, and perhaps it’s a work in progress for all of us.


Ybarra O and Winkielman P 2012 On-line social interactions and executive functions. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience 6 (Article 75):1-6.

©2011-2013 Edward S. Brodkin.  All Rights Reserved


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