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The Social Brain

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Image Reference: Photo by That’s Her Business on Unsplash

Written by Dr. Samantha Brooks and narrated by Aria Edwards

Community spirit is the feeling of being involved in and concerned about one’s local neighbourhood. It’s about having the freedom to enjoy one’s own life while considering and living in close proximity to folk who might have different values and backgrounds to our own. It’s also about giving up selfishness – having altruism – that is, being able to think about the greater good instead of focusing on one’s own needs. We are so lucky in Harfield Village to live among an eclectic mix of people of different ages, cultures, backgrounds and opinions who all live together in harmony. Community spirit is also about taking a collective approach to shared spaces, such as looking after our lovely parks, supporting our local businesses and keeping an eye on crime. Community spirit is at the heart of African culture, and is highlighted by the notion of Ubuntu, which means “we are who we are through others”. So, how does our selfish brain – which is primarily concerned about keeping our individual selves alive and well – become the social brain?

Social Brain Hypothesis


The Social Brain Image.

The Social Brain

The social brain is supported by a network of regions functioning together that enable mentalising, or the ability to understand how we might be perceived by others. It also enables us to empathise with how another might feel, even if they are of a different age, gender or cultural background. Mentalising is sometimes also known as Theory of Mind, which means being able to imagine the mind of another person or a group of people. This is the basis of community spirit, allowing us to think about how our behaviour might be perceived within the neighbourhood and adapting to emerging norms. Theory of mind also allows us to police ourselves, for example, by not playing music loudly because it might annoy our neighbours, or not letting our garbage overflow into the street. But also, mentalising, or Theory of Mind, allows us to empathise about how others feel when engaging in activities in the neighbourhood, such as the pleasure of walking one’s dog in the park, joining local public events, or enjoying our local top-class cafes and restaurants.

The main areas of the brain that function to allow us to have a strong sense of community spirit include: the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC), the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC), the amygdala and related reward/arousal regions (such as the striatum, insula and hippocampus), and the anterior and posterior cingulate cortex (ACC/PCC), which is a ‘collar’ of grey matter that encircles the midbrain structures. The advanced areas of the visual cortex, such as the fusiform gyrus and the precuneus enable us to recognise familiar faces in the street. So, the next time you see Lew Norgarb in his tuk-tuk, you’ll know that these visual cortex areas in your brain will be at work! Modern neuroimaging techniques allow us to model what happens when these brain areas don’t function as well as they should. For example, when the mPFC is damaged or has not developed properly, as in the case of folk living with autism, people struggle with Theory of Mind. That means, that it is difficult to empathise with the feelings of others, which can, in milder cases, underlie social anxiety. Also, an excessively functioning arousal system (incorporating the amygdala, striatum and hippocampus), which is experienced by those people struggling with the ravages of addiction, might seem to act in a selfish way. But in essence they have (temporarily) lost the ability to engage executive prefrontal cortex functions that enable one to consider the perspective of others. The good news is – as I have said before – our brains are very flexible, and so we can learn to strengthen the connections supporting our social brain!

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Another factor that strengthens community spirit and the social brain processes of mentalising, is story telling – keeping a story in mind about our local community. In real-life terms, this means we can share stories about regular events that engage our community and develop memories and a timeline.

For example, Halloween get-together for kids in one of our local parks, has given us a wonderful memory to cherish, as does the regular Harfield Village carnival that evoke memories of fun, laughter and good times shared. Story telling activates ‘feel-good’ hormones in the brain, such as oxytocin and dopamine – this is why gossiping, a form of socially-cohesive story telling – often feels quite pleasant (if done with good intentions of course!). And storytelling activates mirror neurons, so that even if you did not experience the Halloween antics of our local children and parents, or have not attended our local carnival yet, or enjoyed the wonderful food on offer in our many cafes and restaurants, simply hearing the story will make you want to stay, and be part of your wonderful community.

From lost hope to purposeful living, we have the choice to make a change.

Free EBook:

3 Exercises On Purpose. 

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