Wired to Connect
Social networks strongly shape our health and happiness.
Posted Jul 19, 2018
Co-written with Emily Falk, Ph.D.
You likely know lots of people who have the same story: their neighbor’s best friend’s wife helped land their internship or job or interview. Of course, today services like LinkedIn have formalized and streamlined the process of drawing on social networks to find jobs, and other services have done the same for other forms of trade. Online social networking tools have also been a boon for scientists because they make it easier to map social networks and to trace how people use them. And emerging research shows that social networks strongly shape our health and happiness, and recent research from our labs and others shows that social networks even shape how we use our brains to make decisions.
For example, having more numerous and deeper connections predicts better health and well-being. This is not only true for people, but also for monkeys and apes and a wide array of other animals from marmots to whales, suggesting our need and ability to connect has deep evolutionary roots. Our social networks affect our health and happiness, in part, because the support of our friends and families reduces the impact of stress on our brains and bodies. There also seems to be an innate need for most people to connect with others. When we are lonely, a feeling that research shows is extremely common, this evokes feelings of emotional loss and pain.
But it isn’t just the number or quality of connections that matters. People also vary in the configuration of ties in their social networks, and these differences translate into different strengths and weaknesses in the workplace and beyond. People who are so-called “information brokers,” who connect others in their social networks who don’t otherwise know each other, tend to reap specific performance advantages. In the workplace, for example, brokers have access to more diverse ideas, which may facilitate innovation. Although much less studied, indirect social connections in animals also seem advantageous because they enhance information transfer, improve cooperation, and maintain group cohesion.
One of the major discoveries made by neuroscientists in the past two decades is that a specialized “social brain network” manages our social relationships and shapes our interactions with others. New research indicates that information brokers use their social brain networks differently than other people do, even when they are working with the same information. For example, when trying to decide whether to recommend an article to others, information brokers use parts of the social brain network involved in understanding what others think and feel (the so-called “mentalizing” regions) more than people whose friends all know one another.
Remarkably, monkeys, and presumably other nonhuman primates, also possess a social brain network that manages social networking. Genetic studies in people and monkeys suggest that the brain hardware supporting social interactions is at least partially inherited from one’s parents. But genetics is not destiny. Studies of monkeys show that the social brain network responds like a muscle as a function of use. When monkeys are forced to navigate a larger social network, their social brain networks increase in size and connectivity. This in turn confers a greater capacity to network with others.
The idea that social brain networks expand with use is an important insight to consider in educational and workplace contexts. Research in humans shows that mentalizing regions play an important role in many types of interactions, and that people who are better at selling their ideas, literally and figuratively, tend to engage these brain regions more than people who are less successful salespeople. More deeply considering another individual’s point of view (e.g., what will the person I’m going to share with think about this idea?) helps the sharer tune her message to resonate more clearly with mental state of the receiver. It’s possible that information brokers have more opportunities to practice this type of translation, another potential advantage. Building on these observations, providing access to wider and more diverse networks of social ties may fundamentally change the way individuals use their brains when making day-to-day decisions in school or the workplace, and teaching “soft skills” around perspective taking has shown to have wide ranging benefits across the lifespan.
As people change the way they use their brains during social interactions, this can also have ripple effects on others. When people communicate, they influence the ways that their conversation partners see the world. For example, the more activity an idea sparks in one individual’s social brain network, the more that person tends to elicit similar activity in the social brain networks of others when they communicate. When this happens the two brains become more in sync (i.e., show coordinated patterns of activity while the speaker speaks and the listener listens), and the more in sync their brains become, the more successful their communication.
Most people are born with a high-performance neural toolkit that drives their desire to connect with others and their ability to understand their thoughts and feelings, but learning how to use the tools is critical both for students and for relationships at work and at home. This toolkit has deep evolutionary roots and is fundamental to who we are as a species. As we’ve highlighted here, understanding the biology of how people connect is not only interesting in its own right, but also may provide practical benefits, for example by identifying new ways to boost students’ curiosity and engagement in school, select people for teams, monitor employee onboarding and fit with corporate culture, and identify and cultivate more effective leaders. It may also help us to develop new ways to reduce loneliness—a major contributor to health problems ranging from heart disease to the current opioid epidemic—and thereby improve health and wellbeing. As we look to 2018 and consider ways to offset the current climate of disconnection, the science of social connection is more relevant than ever.
Emily Falk, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor at the Annenberg School for Communication and the Wharton Neuroscience Initiative (WiN).