Tuesday, January 02, 2007

#14- Why We Have Big Brains

I don’ t know how many of you have read “The Tipping Point”, a pop-science treatise that has worked its way well up the New York Times best seller list. One section mentioned a study that I want to talk about today, I think it has some very cool and very interesting implications. As I understand it in 1992 a guy named Robert Dunbar decided to tackle the question of human brain size. We’ve done pretty well with our massively enlarged frontal lobes, but what advantage did they give our primate ancestors? What advantages were primates in Africa getting from bigger and bigger brains?

I’ll read from a summary (http://www.commonsenseadvice.com/human_cortex_dunbar.html)

One theory holds that our brains evolved because our primate ancestors began to gather food in more complex ways. They began eating fruit instead of grasses and leaves. This involved traveling long distances to find food, and required each species to maintain a complex mental map in order to keep track of fruit trees. More brainpower might have been needed to determine if a fruit was ripe, or to discern proper methods for peeling fruit or cracking nuts.

The problem with this theory is that if one tries to match brain size with the eating habits of primates, it doesn't work. Some small-brained monkeys are eating fruit and maintaining complex maps and some larger brained primates are eating leaves.

What does work, apparently, is group size. If one examines any species of primate, the larger their neocortex, the larger the average size of the group they live with.

Anthropologist Robin Dunbar has done some of the most interesting research in this area. Dunbar's argument is that as brains evolve, they become larger in order to handle the unique complexities of larger social groups. Humans socialize the largest social groups because we have the largest cortex. Dunbar has developed an equation, which works for most primates, in which he plugs in what he calls the neocortex ratio of a particular species - the size of the neocortex relative to the size of the brain - and the equation gives us the maximum expected group size for each species. For humans, the max group size is 147.8, or about 150. This figure seems to represent the maximum amount of people that we can have a real social relationship with - knowing who another human is and how they relate to us.”

Apparently groups of about 150 show up everywhere, from hunter-gatherer societies to factories to the army. Dunbar and his associates make a big deal out of this number, but I want to focus on a broader implication of the study:

People evolved big brains to form relationships. Computers are good for a lot of things, but they’re best at mathematics because that’s what they were first built to do. Even those early computers could far outpace the human brain in doing mathematics quickly and efficiently, but even modern supercomputers are incapable of understanding and navigating simple social situations. Our higher brain functions are built from the ground up to be very, very good at thinking about relationships. And not just one or two relationships, lots and lots of relationships. We’re built to handle complex communities, whole societies. While most of us deal with far more than 150 people in the course of our lives, juggling 150 relationships allows to have a pretty firm hold on much broader social systems which touch everyone on the globe.

The evolutionary advantages of this kind of a social system are obvious. We’re able to build complicated technologies like computers not just because we’re smart, but because we’re born into a society that has already figured out things like mathematics and electronics. Without complicated societies we’d have no collective memory and no venue for the free exchange of ideas, and our big brains would be still be stuck inventing stone tools. Arguably this ability to form relationships is our most powerful, most valuable and most defining trait as a species. Community is what we’re hard-wired to do, at the same time our super power and the site of many of our most basic and most primal instincts.

Stop for a second and think about all of the vastly complicated relationships that you navigate every day. When you meet a friend for coffee you immediately start crunching more data than MIT. Your friend’s facial expression, the inflection of their voice and the entire history of your friendship are all instantly cross referenced and analyzed without you so much as breaking a sweat. While you’re busy recounting the details of your first day at work, your subconscious is busily referencing and editing a massive pile of information about your friend, a set of information that lets you know what to expect from her, how to act around her and give you the general sense that you “know” her. These relationships with friends and coworkers, most of which “just happen” without any conscious effort, are so complicated that they put moon landings to shame.

Navigating these maelstroms of information is more than just what we’re good at, it’s who we are. Think for a second about our strongest, most fundamental emotions and how deeply tied they are to the people around us. Love, hate, jealousy, comfort, happiness; all are tied deeply to the relationships that we form with others. Emile Durkheim, considered one of the fathers of sociology, made a name for himself be driving home this point. After in depth research he concluded that suicide was a result not of depression or anxiety, but of something he termed “anomie,” which is the feeling that one doesn’t have a place in society, a state where norms are confused, unclear and not present. According to Durkheim relationships with those around us are so fundamental to our understanding of ourselves and our well being that without them we literally cease to exist.

So we’ve established two things: forming relationships is very, very important and we all just so happen to be very, very good at it. Form relationships well and we can navigate society with ease, zeroing in on the people and resources that we need to live our lives and fulfilling our emotional needs to boot. Form relationships poorly and we wind up stuck at home alone with no one to fix our computer, get our foot in the door jobhunting, cook us dinner or talk to us about the game. So how do we make sure that we wind up with the relationships that we need? How do we as think about the relationships that we form?

Because we’re such social creatures a good way to understand how we think about something is usually to listen to the way we talk about it. We all intuitively understand that a ball falls to the ground when you drop it and that it travels a ways and then falls to the ground when you throw it. If we want to do something more complicated than throwing a ball, say throwing a ball really far and hitting a precise target, then we need a language to talk about what’s going on with the ball, a language like physics. And when you get down to it that’s all that physics is, a set of words and concepts and equations that people use to talk about how things move around. Having a better language about how stuff moves let’s us have a better conversation, which let’s us build cooler airplanes and cell phones and vacuum cleaners. And it’s not just physicists that soak themselves in technical jargon. Walk into any room of computer programmers, fashion designers, sports fans or teenagers and unless you happen to be one too you’ll feel like you just got off at the wrong floor on the tower of Babel. That’s because experts in things (yes, being a teenager requires expertise) NEED that nuanced language to describe what’s going on. Learn the language and you’re pretty much an expert yourself.

So if we’re all such experts at thinking about relationships, how do we talk about them? A lot of this language is nuanced. Bosses have words like “synergy” to talk about their relationships with their employees. We all have works like “obligation” and “trust” to talk about our friends and family, but usually only when those relationships are going sour. The curious fact of the mater is that for all of the effort our ancestors spend evolving the ability to think about relationships we spend remarkably little time actually talking about them, with one notable exception.

Tell a friend that you want to meet them for coffee and talk about a relationship, and they’ll probably assume that the relationship involves sex, or at least that it’s on its way to involving sex sometime in the future. When it comes to relationships that involve sex or that might involve sex there is tons of jargon and everyone’s heard it. Flirting, dating, friends with benefits, breaking up , marriage. As soon as a relationship has a whiff of sexual potential we approach it with the lexicon of a trained medical doctor, noting every phone call and every tonal inflection like we were treating a patient with cancer.

This poses a very interesting question, one which (to my knowledge) has yet to be the subject of any serious academic research: Why do we spend to much time and energy talking about relationships that involve sex and so little time and energy talking about relationships that don’t? Remember, we got our big brains not so we could think about one sexual relationship or the four or five relationships that constitute a family but so we could think about the dozens and dozens of relationships that constitute a community. Actively thinking about only one relationship, or even about three of four relationships in a family is a little like buying a high-powered laptop to play pong; it doesn’t make pong any easier, and you can do a lot more.

For the moment let’s avoid speculation on how this verbal discrepancy between sexual and nonsexual relationships came about and talk about how, well, WEIRD it is. You hang out with someone, everything is chill, you introduce sexuality and suddenly you’ve gone from throwing a ball back and forth to calculating a moon landing.

This transition doesn’t seem to make sense to anyone. To be sure sexuality is important to a lot of people, and it certainly has it’s own set of neurochemical implications, but given the prevalence of relationship-free sex throughout history it seems unlikely that sex and love share a purely chemical bond.


There’s a proverbial moon landing if ever there was one. Finding, maintaining and fully realizing love is one of the hardest, most important and most fulfilling things that people do in their lives. And even though most of us love our friends and our families we only actively look for love in relationships that involve sex and it’s that search for love that makes sexual relationships so marvelously complicated.

Remember-we’re basically walking talking relationship-forming machines, it makes perfect sense that our instincts would be geared towards a search for companionship. It also makes sense that that search would be really, really hard (that’s why we have these big brains to begin with.) What doesn’t make sense is why, when we’re built to be part of a big, complicated community and when big, complicated communities are such an integral part of our emotional and material lives, we would cram all of our need for companionship into such a tiny box. Communities were the secret to our prehistoric success and they’re just as powerful today, wielding a level of political and social power that few individual families can match. Communities and the networks of friendships that they encompass can provide much of the stability and emotional support that we look for so desperately from relationships that involve sex, so why do we talk about relationships like communities and friendships don’t matter?

I’m gonna go out on a limb here and say that the language we use to talk about relationships sucks.

Take a moment and try to envision a world where the way that we think about and talk about relationships was more reflective of the way that they actually happen. The word “single” would be stricken from our vocabulary, along with the awkward, narrowly focused social scenes designed with single people in mind. Rather than setting out on a hell-or-high-water quest to “find the perfect someone”, people would leave home confident in the supportive relationships that they already had and excited about building new relationships to expand their community. Rather than looking for one sexual relationship to do everything (and probably coming home, or at least waking up, empty handed) they would look for a relationship that could do something and expect everything to happen once all those somethings were added together.

If in between finding someone to go hiking with and someone who shared their obsessions with The Doors they happened to find someone to have sex with they would be able to focus a lot more energy on talking about how to have fun and be safe and a lot less energy on the emotional baggage that sex is forced to lug around currently. That’s not to say that sex would be divorced from emotion- a lot of people would still only enjoy sex once real intimacy was involved, but the process of finding that intimacy wouldn’t be seen as an exclusively sexual one. At family gatherings awkward questions about when you would “find someone” would be replaced by equally awkward questions about the strength of your community and the breadth and depth of your network of friends. Maybe you’d still fall in love, get married and have kids, and when you did you’d sit down with your spouse and all of your friends to talk about working together to raise those kids.

Ok, so to me that sounds appealing. Maybe the idea of maintaining close relationships with 20 people as part of your childrearing sounds like your idea of hell, the point is that the language we use to talk about relationships matters and we’re free to change it if we want to. Think about it as the software that we use for our overpowered relationship-forming hardware. By thinking about and tweaking the way that we talk about relationships we can use all of that brainpower to make our lives that much better.