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Social brain and role of play in its development

Updated on February 22, 2016

Many may be surprised to know that human brain is also a social organ. That is why the term social brain has been applied to its some specific parts. Social brain can be defined as parts of the brain that are closely involved in our social development.

It appears that complex human social interaction and communication has neurobiological basis. We humans are the most social of all animals having most fascinating social lives. But it has been found that there exists a biological basis of our social abilities and their evolution.

According to Brothers, 1990, social psychologists have been investigating social behavior for upwards of a century, but this work, which has contributed valuable insights on how people influence each other, occurred largely in isolation from the rest of neurobiology. Instead, the impetus for the recent marriage of social psychology with neurobiology came from comparative studies, providing us with the term ‘social brain’.

Neurologists and neuroscientists have found that damage to certain parts of the brain – social brain - can affect our ability to be empathic, can cause social ineptness or can make it hard to understand life’s overall picture. In other words, any damage to “social brain” can immensely affect our social life.

Social brain allows us to interact with people better. The function of the social brain is to enable us to make predictions during social interactions. As with all our interactions with the world, we can do much better, if we can predict what is going to happen next.

Parts of brain involved in social cognitive functions -

Social cognition – the ability to think about the minds and mental states of others – is essential for interaction and communication with each other amongst human beings. Research has found that social cognition develops as early as six to eleven years of age in normal people. There is evidence that certain aspects of social cognition continue to change during adolescence. It appears that adolescence, not only childhood, is a time of continued maturation of brain and behavior, when education and the environment can have an impact on cognitive development.

The evidence for specific brain-behavior relationships in the area of social cognition is still under development. The main brain regions thought to be involved in social functioning include amygdala, the temporal lobes (TL), the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC), the dorsomedial frontal cortex (dmPFC), and the dorsolateral frontal cortex (dlPFC).

There is evidence that lesions to the amygdala can lead to social isolation. The consequences of lesions of amygdala on social cognition cannot be attributed solely to the amygdala. They are likely due in good part to amygdala damage. People with such lesions do show severe impairments in processing emotional and social information. There is some indication that damage to the right amygdala may disrupt aspects of social cognition more than damage to the left amygdala.

The temporal lobes, particularly in the non-dominant hemisphere, are essential for accurate perception and interpretation of social communication. TL regions are responsible for recognizing familiar faces and facial emotions, interpreting voice prosody, and understanding a person’s intentions and emotions from their body posture, gestures, and movements. There is also some evidence that the anterior TL may be involved in precipitating emotional empathy. Damage to these regions short circuits the ability to correctly perceive the other’s nonverbal signals and evaluate their communicative intent. This can in turn disrupt higher order social cognitive processing performed in the frontal lobes.

Some people with frontal lobe injury fail to adhere to social norms, the evaluation of which is thought to be performed by the OFC. People with damage to the OFC, particularly in the right hemisphere, show a pattern of behavioral decontrol that may involve: emotional blunting and emotional lability, deficient decision making behavior, deficient goal directed behavior and general disorganization.

The dorsomedial portions of the frontal lobes, including the anterior cingulate, paracingulate, superior frontal gyrus, and frontal pole appear to be involved in higher-level social cognition. The complex processes of self-monitoring and taking the perspective of others are highly interdependent, and are both mediated by dmPFC structures.

The lateral frontal lobe areas mediate conventional executive skills such as planning, sequencing, inhibition, generation, working memory, and abstract reasoning, all of which directly impact our ability to perform complex reasoning about social information. The ability to intentionally regulate, organize, and plan our own behavior, as well as to deliberate about the behaviors of others, is partly mediated by these dlPFC functions.

At birth, the neocortex is largely a clean “blackboard”, upon which experience writes the unique script of an individual’s life. We have a series of genetically ordained intentional, emotional, and motivational tools for learning about the world. All the details of this learning get stored away in the neocortex. These powerful emotional and motivational tools for living and learning are genetically instinctual networks, which are all contained in the more ancient subcortical reaches of our brains—regions that are remarkably similar in all mammals.

All work, no play makes social brain dull –

For brain development, time in the classroom may be less important than time on the playground. The experience of play changes the connections of the neurons in the prefrontal cortex. These changes in the prefrontal cortex during childhood that help wire up the brain's executive control center, which has a critical role in regulating emotions, making plans and solving problems. So, play is what prepares a young brain for life, love and even schoolwork. As a matter of fact, play has a very different purpose, which is to build social brain that knows how to interact with others in positive ways. The changes caused by play in the prefrontal cortex involve switching certain genes off or on. It has been found that, of 1,200 genes that scientists have discovered, about one third were significantly changed simply by half-an-hour of play.

An added bonus is that the skills associated with play ultimately lead to better grades. In one study, researchers found that the best predictor of academic performance in eighth grade was a child's social skills in third grade.

The bottom line –

As human beings, our social life is greatly influenced by our social cognitive skills. Some parts of human brain, collectively called social brain, affect our social interaction and communication, contributing to different social aptitudes in people. It is worth knowing that social cognition develops mainly as early as six to eleven years but its development and maturation continue even in adolescence. Furthermore, education and environmental experiences impact the development of our social cognition.

Researchers have found that play in childhood and adolescence contributes largely to the development of social cognitive skills. Additionally, it also improves academic performance in children, if they engage simply in regular half-an-hour of play.

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    • Dr Pran Rangan profile image
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      Dr Pran Rangan 19 months ago from Kanpur (UP), India

      Thanks Dana for your insightful comments as usual.

    • Dana Tate profile image

      Dana Tate 19 months ago from LOS ANGELES

      Very interesting hub Dr. Pran Rangan. The brain and how it works is very fascinating. We as the most intelligent out of all the creatures that this world has produced will forever be searching for the one thing we wish to know, which is why.