Saturday, October 03, 2009

Back to Brains!

I've been saying for years that for women, styling each other's hair and makeup is the human interpretation of social grooming in monkeys. Ever since I went to college and shared a bathroom with a whole hall of girls, where I observed again and again and again that the bathroom even more so than the lounge was where congregation on conversation happened. Women are social groomers. We bond over hair and makeup. Even those of us who eschew makeup and curling irons have been known to submit to this grooming in the interest of socialization.

So now we're back to brains again-- Monkeys' grooming habits provide clues to how we socialize.
Kind of obvious, right? Here's the twist. The larger the neocortex, the smaller circle in which they concentrate their social grooming. The larger the neocortex, the larger the groups in which these monkeys congregate, too. So, larger groups but smaller groups of friends. But it's okay, because the larger neocortex evidently allows for monkeys, and us, to balance more distant relationships. Essentially, they can be pleasant to everyone without being best friends forever with the entire group. The larger neocortex allows that complexity.

According to this article, our neocortexes (neocortegi?) are three times the size of these other monkeys. And that accounts for our ability to socialize on such tremendous scales. We're balancing relationships with hundreds of people at a time, as opposed to the 50 of even the more sophisticated monkeys. We have our close friends, who we concentrate our time and effort on, and two hundred other people we still associate with when we're put in the right situation. Go take a look at the number of friends you have on facebook or myspace. How many of them do you actually talk to on the phone? or spend time with once a week? How many of them do you just check status updates on, and call it good?

Thank your neocortex!
And remember, it isn't total brain size that counts-- it's the size of the PARTS of the brain that matters!

So what do you think this means about Hyenas and their greater ability to cooperate? What part of the brain is it that is more effectively developed? And what do their neocortexes look like?


  1. That is fascinating. I wonder if scans would show a physical difference between humans with different levels of social development and social circles...

  2. I'm guessing that those with less developed or less lit up neocortexes probably have fewer associations?

    but I don't know. it would definitely be interesting to look into. I kind of want to know about the neocortex of other animals too, in comparison.

  3. Indeed! I was aware of the relationship between larger social group and smaller group of close friends, but the brain structure bit is new to me.

    I'm sure they'll do a study in the next few years, if they haven't already begun (or completed) one.


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