The Social Brain

Many people believe that different human psychological traits such as intelligence, way of expressing emotions, shyness, sociability, neuroticism, etc… are innate. They believe that much of one’s personality is actually an intrinsic character – a direct expression of one’s genetic material. They think people are who they are for these reasons. We are talking about human “nature,” implying that characteristics are born from birth.

Beliefs about the crucial role of genetics on the human character were probably generated by the transmission of inferences made by humans through observing animals. There are numerous animal species in which the behaviour of an individual is largely determined by its genes.

We forget that there is a big difference between the brain of an animal and the brain of a human. The earlier an animal is able to function independently, the lower its ability to learn, and the greater the role of genetic programs. Humans have been learning for decades, so it takes more than twenty years for the brain to complete development.

It is not well known that the brain of a newborn child is, in fact, a half-product. How a part of the brain will develop – and whether it will develop – depends primarily on how stimulated the given part of the brain is. The principle of brain development is this: in order for the brain to develop, it must be stimulated, and if not stimulated, the number of connections between brain cells in a given region is reduced. It’s the same as muscle. This phenomenon is called neuroplasticity and reflects the economic principle that our body acts on; what is not used decreases and what is used increases.

Much of the stimulation a child receives is social stimulation by his or her parents and other people. The way parents treat a child stimulate certain actions and activities depends on how their brain develops. If taught to control emotions, the child will develop that ability. That is why a child’s brain structures develop according to family and social environments. This is why the famous neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga has been calling the human brain “the social brain” since 1987.

The organization and mode of functioning of the brain, and therefore the mode of functioning of a person and the psyche of a particular person, are not a direct expression of his genetics and some “innate character”, but rather a combination of various factors, of which social are crucial.

Changing the way we understand the emergence of personality is very important because it is linked to our expectations of whether one can change, develop new abilities or give up negative behaviors. Parents who think their child’s shyness is innate because their dad’s sister is shy also won’t try to change this trait – nor will they be aware of how wrong they are.

By: Nikola Jovic

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