With the social media boom that has transformed our lives in the last decade, it is no secret that the need to connect with one another is central to our day-to-day existence. Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and Instagram, among others, make it easy to communicate in an increasingly busy world, we are now able to Skype across time zones and send videos as events happen. The technological progress that has enabled these innovations is extraordinary, but this is not without problems. Technology is moving at a faster rate than evolution ever has, and we need to know how best to react, without losing sight of what really makes our social brains tick.
As a society it is only in recent times that we have realised just how important our social lives are to all aspects of our physical and cognitive functioning; and new research in the field of social and cognitive neuroscience has shed light on why. For years neuroscientists had observed three regions in the brain that are activated when 'working memory' (which can be thought of as conscious thinking or problem solving) is not in use. This activity was labelled the 'default network' - simply because it lights up by default when the brain is at 'rest'. A team based at UCLA led by Matthew Lieberman have now observed that the default network and the regions actively involved in social cognition are overlapping, meaning that our default neural reaction is to think socially. That is to say, whenever the brain is not actively engaged, it prefers to revert back to filtering through social life, explaining why we get so fixated on social problems.
This finding has huge implications for the way we should be thinking about running our institutions. Providing a social outlet is of paramount importance; and something that evolution realised long ago- the benefits led to neural adaptations predisposing us to seek connection. It is thus essential that we continue to build and embrace our social skills, and that we encourage this in the younger generation. In a paradoxical world where it is simultaneously possible to create the illusion of being connected while sitting alone in a dark room, we must consciously make an effort to harbour the skills that have served us well through the last 10 million years and to develop real relationships away from our screens. The decline in depth of interaction that has been reported in the last decade is worrying, and despite the huge increase in social media use, it appears that our innate need to connect is not always being met.
Some social media companies have started to realise that quantity and quality are not the same thing; Path restricts users to 150 friends, based on "Dunbar's number" - following the finding by evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar that the size of the prefrontal cortex in mammals is directly proportional to the optimal group size, that being 150 for humans. Anything over that and keeping track of interactions becomes cognitively taxing.
So, in a world where communication is literally just a couple of clicks away perhaps we should be thinking about how best to use the incredible tools that are now available to us to deepen our relationships, rather than passively comparing ourselves to peripheral connections by flicking through news feeds. Doing so will not only have incredible benefits for our physical and emotional health - "having a poor social network is literally as bad for you as smoking two packets of cigarettes a day" (Lieberman) - but it may also help you to progress your career. Social skills were classified as twice as important as intelligence for leadership in a US study.
Reassessing depth of interactions must become a priority. In 1985 Americans reported an average of three 'good friends', and this number has dropped steadily ever since- a 2004 report suggested only 37% of respondents had three or more people with whom they could discuss major life decisions. Social media was not built to create distance, and it has served as a powerful platform bringing people together, but perhaps an understanding of why we are so drawn to quick social fixes will help us to be more mindful of our online activity, using it to enable the real world connections that we crave.