2-11 Your Social Brain

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Lack of maternal care in nonhuman primates leads to reduced levels of serotonin, greater aggression, more alcohol consumption, and more anxiety-like behaviors during adolescence. Low serotonin levels also spark a cycle of aggressive behavior and social illiteracy that sets up a child for school failure and peer rejection. The set points are determined during development, and depend on early experience, but they can be changed by moving to a new environment, where you are surrounded by different people.

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Who you hang out with strongly influences who you are. You will behave with more decorum in a group of serious scholars than with a group of drinking buddies. A colleague at Oxford University married a Danish woman once, and he told me his relationship with his wife changed once he learned Danish. They fell in love with each other speaking English. He wanted to learn Danish so he could get to know her better. When he spoke to his wife in Danish, he discovered she was a different person, and they fell out of love. Different languages, different personalities. Google once did an in-depth study to find out what factors went into making a successful team. Were the best teams made up of people with similar interests? Did it matter whether everyone was motivated by the same rewards? How often did teammates socialize outside their office? Did they have the same hobbies? Were their educational backgrounds similar? Was it better for all teammates to be outgoing, or for all of them to be shy? They started Project Aristotle to find out, and what they discovered was that none of these factors predicted success. For example, some successful teams had similar backgrounds, but others came from different backgrounds. Finally, they hit on one factor that predicted how well teams innovated. They called the factor “psychological safety”. What was important was that the members of the team felt comfortable taking risks and sometimes failing. This encouraged team members to have interpersonal trust and to mutually respect everybody, feeling comfortable being themselves. The most successful teams had the most empathy. If you want to be successful working together with others, seek out those who are socially sensitive and can empathize with each other. Empathy can be enhanced by chemicals that affect brain chemistry. Ecstasy is a popular psychoactive drug taken at parties to enhance sociality. It produces a sense of well-being and happiness, including feelings of closeness with others, increased emotionality, enhanced sensation, and a sense of inner peace. Ecstasy causes a massive release of serotonin in the brain. Serotonin is one of the major neurochemical messengers found in the brain of every vertebrate, including ours. Neurons in the brain stem that manufacture serotonin project widely, influencing billions of neurons in the cerebral cortex - the most highly evolved part of the human brain. But there is also a downside to taking Ecstasy. Ecstasy releases most of the available serotonin in the brain and you become withdrawn, less social, for weeks that it takes to fully replenish your supply of serotonin. Prozac, a drug that is effective in treating some types of depression, also increases serotonin activity in humans by blocking the re-uptake of serotonin by neurons. Even many who do not suffer from clinical depression find that it lifts their mood, making them feel self-confident and more sociable. In contrast to Ecstasy, however, those who take Prozac only begin to feel better about themselves after many weeks of taking it, and the effects last much longer. Ecstasy, by contrast, alters serotonin levels very rapidly and depletes its stores, whereas Prozac causes a slower and longer term buildup in serotonin activity. Brain serotonin levels depend heavily on the environment. Lack of maternal care in nonhuman primates leads to reduced levels of serotonin, greater aggression, more alcohol consumption, and more anxiety-like behaviors during adolescence. Low levels of serotonin in stressed brains can make for a chemical tripwire for extreme and unpredictable violence. Low serotonin levels also spark a cycle of aggressive behavior and social illiteracy that sets up a child for school failure and peer rejection. Inmates in jail for violent crimes have some of the lowest levels of serotonin activity in society. Your social brain is swimming in a sea of neuromodulators, like serotonin, that affect your temperament. The set points are determined during development, and depend on early experience, but they can be changed by moving to a new environment, where you are surrounded by different people. Choose friends and coworkers who have aspirations that fit into your goals.

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