Social intuition is one of the dimensions of Davidson’s Six Dimensions of Emotional Style1 (See the Healthymemory Blog post “The Six Dimensons of Emotional Style”). The two immediately preceding blog posts have discussed the Outlook and Reslience dimensions. Social intuition refers to how attuned individuals are to social signals and to their ability to pick up social cues. People with autism are at the pathological end of this dimension. Others are deficient in their social interactions being mildly puzzled by the behaviors of others. People high in social intuition can read others like a book.
The brain structures most relevant to social intuition are the fusiform gyrus and the amygdala. High levels of activity in the fusiform gyrus and low to moderate levels in the amygdala are typical of people who are moderate to highly socially intuitive. Low levels of activity in the fusiform gyrus and high levels of activity in the amygdala characterize people who are puzzled by social interactions. Studies of the autistic brain have confirmed this heightened level of activity.
Social context is similar to social intuition with these two differences. Social context refers to how one responds to the what is present and happening in the environment in general. It also involves a different brain structure. The brain structure central to social context is the hippocampus. The hippocampus should be familiar to readers of the Healthymemory blog due to its importance in memory (try entering “hippocampus” into the search box and see how many hits you get). Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) can be regarded as a disorder of disrupted context. Studies have shown PTSD is associated with losses in the volume of the hippocampus. This diminished hippocampus has difficulty forming memories of the context in which something occurred thus conflating the dangers of a war zone with the relatively safety of home. Davidson has concluded that unusually low levels of activity in the hippocampus underlies the “tuned out” end of the sensitivity to context dimension. At the tuned in extreme high levels of activity in the hippocampus can lead to too much focus on context can make one overly self-conscious and socially inhibited. It can also lead to an obsessive need to please other people. At the other end of the continuum, too little activation of the hippocampus can lead to a lack of focus on context that might cause one to overlook something that is important or even dangerous. So Sensitivity to Social Context is another “Goldilocks” variable. Too much or too little can be bad. It needs to be “Just Right.”
Connections between the hippocampus and other brain regions, particularly the prefrontal cortex are also important. The hippocampus needs to communicate with the executive functions in the prefrontal cortex and well as memories held in long term storage. Stronger connections increase sensitivity to context. Weaker connections decrease sensitivity to social context.
Later posts will indicate how you change where you are on these social dimensions.
1Davidson, R.J. & Begley, S. (2112). The Emotional Life of Your Brain. New York: Hudson Street Press.