Our Social Brains

Late in the 20th century, a diverse group of scholars (medical researchers, psychologists, computer scientists, philosophers, and others) started applying amazing new tools to the human brain. These tools include philosophical and epistemological tools (ideas to help us think about human learning), clinical and therapeutic tools (methods for studying patients in hospitals and similar setting), and laboratory tools (methods for conducting experiments and otherwise gathering data in controlled settings). Among the most interesting laboratory tools have been imaging tools such as computer aided tomography (CAT), electroenchalography, transcranial magnetic stimulation, and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) which have allowed researchers to study healthy and functioning brains under well-controlled conditions. Before such tools were available, much brain research took years to complete and was quite grisly as patients who suffered brain injuries were studied in great detail and then their brains were autopsied so that their disability could be associated with the part of the brain found to be damaged.

Modern tools are helping cognitive scientists understand how humans learn to a much greater level of accuracy and sophistication than has ever been known to humans, and the rate of discoveries in cognitive science is accelerating, so new discoveries displace current knowledge quickly. The speed at which these discoveries are being made is one of the factors complicating the work of refreshing education for the current and future generations. Among the important discoveries made by cognitive science are those that describe the importance of social interaction in learning, the physiology of learning, the plasticity in the human brain, and details of how the environment contributes to brain function.

Social Brains

Many species live in social groups and interaction within those groups is well known. In humans, however, social life takes on a level of complexity and sophistication that far exceeds what is observed in other species. Michael Gazzaniga, a noted neuroscientist who has studied human brains for decades, concluded “The shift to becoming highly social is what the human is all about,” (emphasis in the original) and he continues, “Our higher intellectual skills arose as an adaptation to our newly evolved social needs” (2008, 111-2). He argued that, in natural environments where humans first lived, there was strong competition from other species for the resources needed by humans and there was strong predatory stress on humans. In this environment, individual humans gained both survival and reproductive advantage by forming mutually supportive social groups. Humans’ sociality affected the evolution of their brains. Mathew Lieberman, a psychologist from the University of California, Los Angeles, observed, “Our social nature is not an accident of having a larger brain. Rather, the value of increasing sociality is a major reasons for why we have a larder brain” (2013, 33). Having discovered the origins of humans’ unusual brain development; cognitive scientists have turned attention to understanding the structures and functions of human brain. 

Humans’ social interactions depend on several complex brain functions including the perception of subtle signals, the recognition of patterns, the construction of and recollection of complex ideas, and the control of actions in response to all of these. Brains are compartmentalized organs; different sections are associated with different cognitive functions, and when a section of the brain is more active, several measurable changes occur in that section. Most social interaction is associated with increased activity in neocortex of primate brains. (The neocortex is the outermost layer of the cerebrum. You can locate the cerebrum under your skull by pulling a baseball cap down tight over your head—it will just about cover the part of your skull protecting your cerebrum.) 

In primates, the size of the neocortex is positively correlated with social interactions; the bigger the neocortex, the greater social interaction observed in the species. Of the primates, humans have the largest neocortical regions. The social interactions that are associated with the size of the neocortex include the size of the group with which an individual can maintain grooming relationships, the ability of an individual to interact without using force, and the frequency of play. It turns out that “playing well with others” is important for human survival and human brains are designed to play well with others.

The highly social groups that characterize human populations depend on individuals’ theory of mind. According to this theory, a human has the capacity to be aware of what he or she is thinking and at the same time understand that other humans are also thinking and the other may be thinking either the same idea or a different idea. Steven Pinker (1997), a professor of psychology at Harvard University, explains this ability to guess what others are thinking with these words: 

We mortals can’t read others people’s minds directly. But we make good guesses from what they say, what we read between the lines, what they show on their faces, and what best explains their behavior. It is our species’ most remarkable talent (30). 

As Pinker suggests, theory of mind is a component of the social brain appears to be uniquely human.

While theory of mind is an important aspect of sociality, it does not appear to be sufficiently sophisticated to capture the complexity of humans’ social life.  In his 2014 book, A Natural History of Human Thinking, Michael Tomasello elucidated the shared intentionality hypothesis, which comprises three elements. First, humans are capable of understanding a situation from different perspectives. Second, humans can self-reflect and can reflect on the intentions of others. Third, humans can evaluate outcomes against intentions and against social norms. It is not until all three of these characteristics developed that uniquely human cognition, which is embedded in culture, appeared.

Tomasello clarifies the role of social interaction in the development of an individual human as a learner as well. According to Tomasello, “a modern child raised on a desert island would not automatically construct fully human processes of thinking on its own” (2014, 6). While children are born with the capacity to communicate and collaborate and learning, Tomasello observes, “it is only in actually exercising these skills in social interactions with others (6)” that human cognition develops.

Some social scientists and educators understood the fact of the social brain long before natural scientists found evidence of it. Late in the 20th century, educators rediscovered the work of Lev Vygotsky, the Russian scholar who developed sociohistoric psychology in the early 20th century (see for example Vygotsky 1978; Moll 1992). According to this theory, knowledge is constructed in social interactions and influenced by the culture in which one lives. Learning, Vygotsky observed, is a cultural activity as much as a cognitive activity. Vygotskian thinking did influence many scholars, curriculum designers, and educators in the 20th century, but it has been abandoned in many instances as standards, standardized tests, and instructionism gained prominence in the first decade of the 21st century. Because human brains are organs designed by and for sociality, it is anticipated that educational practices which reflect the realities of how brains learn will replace curriculum and instruction based on theories that ignore the social brain.


Gazzaniga, Michael. 2008. Human: The Science Behind What Makes Us Unique. New York: Ecco.

Lieberman, Matthew D. 2013. Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect. New York: Crown Publishers.

Moll, Luis, ed. 1992. Vygotsky and Education: Instructional Implications and Applications of Sociohistorical Psychology. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Pinker, Steven. 1997. How the Mind Works. W. W. Norton & Company.

Tomasello, Michael. 2014. A Natural History of Human Thinking. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Vygotsky, Lev. 1978. Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes, 14th ed. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.