How Socializing Helps the Brain

How Socializing Helps the Brain

On the go? Listen to our blog instead of reading it.
Voiced by Amazon Polly

By Margaret Fiero

If you’ve ever struggled with depression, you known the feeling of wanting to wallow alone, away from others. UT professors Dr. Art Markman and Dr. Bob Duke, co-hosts of KUT’s “Two Guys on Your Head,” argue in a recent episode that it’s in those moments that you should push yourself to go out and be around people, even if it means going solo to a movie or sporting event. Why? Well, we’ve heard humans referred to as “social creatures,” but Markman and Duke explain that this goes far beyond just our general idea of “social” and deep into our species’ wiring. Humans are designed to be cooperative, because together we can accomplish “tremendous amounts in ways we can’t as individuals.”

It isn’t just what can be accomplished but the process along the way that is enhanced by the collective experience. Moments shared with others connect us, partly because we communicate in more ways than we know. Markman and Duke give the example of an individual standing up and cheering at a game – though this person didn’t directly say to you, “I am excited,” you are aware of their excitement. Their enthusiasm increases the energy in the environment, stirring your own. I feel this partly explains why I prefer yoga classes at the studio as opposed to using a DVD at home alone – I am propelled by the energy of others in the class, whereas at home by myself I feel less motivated.

Part of the reason for the connection is due to a theory that we have “mirror neurons,” which enable our brains to react as if we’re doing something that we’re watching someone else do. Again, this is an evolutionary function – it enables better communication because it increases our ability to understand the other person we’re watching. I would argue that it also increases empathy between individuals. When you’re experiencing something alone, you’re not receiving feedback from outside yourself, from the environment. Responding to others encourages you to, as Markman and Duke put it, “take alternative perspectives” other than your own.

Markman and Duke go on to say that “synchronized” experience even further connects individuals. To demonstrate this, they give an example of a marching army unit. The reason the soldiers are ordered to march is because the unit feels bonded after the experience of marching together. When I think of an army unit, though, I don’t think of a group of unique personalities, but rather a mass in which individuality is erased. This speaks somewhat to the sacrifice involved when joining a group. “We lost some of our identity as an individual, but gain an identity as part of a group,” which we want, according to Markman and Duke.

Humans want to belong, but taken too far, this can lead to “groupthink.” Markman and Duke cite research studies from the 1960’s that exposed “diffusion of responsibility,” in which the bigger the size of the group, the less individuals feel responsible for actions of the group, which they use to justify bad behavior. This is perhaps one reason mobs can easily turn violent, depending on the situation.

In general, though, the lesson here is that interactions with others – no matter how seemingly minor – are good. Markman and Duke highlight what therapists everywhere have been telling their clients for years: if you’re feeling depressed or even just “down,” get off of the computer, get out, do something, get involved, have fun, volunteer, go to an exercise class or a book club meeting, call a friend or, if they’re in short supply, just wander around a farmers market and talk to people selling their fruits and veggies. You may end up feeling more connected to others, or find some unexpected alternative perspective to get you out of your slump. If you have trouble socializing, you can read How to Improve Your Social Skills. If you are interested in blog posts relating to the brain, you can also read What Does Music Do to the Brain? and Rooting for Our Team Helps Our Brains.

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash