Posts Tagged ‘Robin Dunbar’

Loneliness

July 25, 2017

This post is largely based on a feature article titled “Feeling lonely? You’re not on your own” by Moya Sarner in the 22 July 2017 New Scientist.

Steve Cole at the University of California at Los Angeles says that lonely people are at increased risk of “just about every major chronic illness — heart attacks, neurodegenerative diseases, cancer. A meta-analysis of nearly 150 studies found that a poor quality of social relationships had the same negative effect on risk of death as smoking, alcohol and other well-known factors such as inactivity and obesity. Cacioppo of the University of Chicago says that “Correcting for demographic factors, loneliness increases the odds of early mortality by 26%. That’s about the same as living with chronic obesity,”

One reason is that loneliness lowers willpower, so we are more likely to indulge in self-defeating behavior. We make take risks and make bad decision from choosing unhealthy food to avoiding exercise, Feeling socially isolated also increases the risk of mental health problems such as stress, depression, and eating disorders, all of which aversely effect our physical health.

Cacioppo and Cole compared gene expression in the white blood cells of two groups. One group consisted of six persistently lonely middle-aged adults and in the other group were eight who ranked as consistently socially enfranchised. In the lonelier group, the activity of genes responsible for inflammation was ramped up.

Although inflammation is the body’s first line of defense against injury and bacterial infection, too much inflammation has been linked to cancer, depression, Alzheimer’s disease, and obesity. The lonely people also had less activity in the genes that regulate immune response to viral infections.

Too much inflammation changes the brain triggering behaviors that prime for threats. Cole says, “Inflammatory biology makes the brain a little more suspicious, vigilant and irritable.” Cacioppo and his team measured people’s brain activity while they looked at either threatening or neutral pictures and found that lonely people tuned in to social threats faster. This hyper-vigilance could explain the correlation between loneliness and poor sleep quality.

Today young people seem particularly vulnerable. This article does not mention the manner in which technology is used. Being constantly connected and friending could be driven in large part by loneliness. Robin Dunbar, at the University of London (who has appeared in five previous healthy memory blog posts) states that if there’s one factor that stands out in alleviating loneliness, it is the quality, rather than quantity of relationships. He says that this fits our evolutionary past. “For you to live, survive, work, and function well depends on you having a set of very intense close friendships, or family relationships. It turns out that this core group numbers about five close friends and family—and this is very consistent across primates, including humans.” To maintain those crucial five or so relationships, there’s an easy formula. You need to dedicate 40% of your total social effort to them, “ and that means seeing them on a very regular basis.” Small changes like pruning random acquaintances from social media, setting notifications for updates from real friends, and spending time with a core group could all act as a buffer against loneliness.

It seems the best approach is to start with the mind, rather than trying to expand you social network. A meta-analysis of interventions to reduce loneliness found that the most successful dealt with the psychological aspects of loneliness using cognitive behavioral training. The heightened sense of threat lonely people feel means they are more likely to pay attention and remember negative details and events, and behave in ways that confirm their negative expectations, perpetuating the vicious spiral of loneliness.

Research by Cole, who is investigating what factors might make people less likely to succumb to the negative health effects of loneliness, thinks that finding a sense of purpose and meaning in life can overcome the negative effects of loneliness. Cole says, “If you think of lonely people as having a world view of threat and hostility, this study suggests that you can attack this underlying psychology by becoming engaged in help others, trying to make the world a better place. I’m kind of excited about that as an obliques attack on loneliness.” All of this fits in with with the work of Victor J. Stretcher, which he describes in his book, “Life on Purpose: How Living for What Matters Changes Everything.” There have been many healthy memory posts based on this book.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

 

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Thinking with Other People

July 7, 2017

This is the sixth post in the series The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone (Unabridged), written by Steven Sloman and Phillip Fernbach. Thinking with Other People is a chapter in this book. The evolution of modern humans from other species of hominids was extremely rapid on an evolutionary time scale. It began with the emergence of the genus Homo on the African savannah 2 to 3 million years ago. Sloan and Fernbach note that the great leap that humanity took during that period was cognitive. The brain mass of modern humans is about three times that of our early hominid ancestors.

A compelling hypothesis, the social brain hypothesis, is that the driving force of the evolution of human intelligence was the coordination of multiple cognitive systems to pursue complex, shared goals. Living in a group confers advantages, such as hunting, but it demands certain cognitive abilities. There are needs to communicate in sophisticated ways, to understand and incorporate the perspectives of others, and the sharing of common goals. According to the social brain hypothesis the cognitive demands and adaptive advantages associated with living in a group created a snowball effect: As groups got larger and developed more complex joint behaviors, individuals developed new capabilities to support those behaviors, which in turn allowed groups to get even larger and allowed group behavior to become even more complex.

Anthropologist Robin Dunbar, whom we have encountered previously in healthy memory blog posts, tested the social brain hypothesis against the ecological hypothesis. He collected data on many species of primates on brain size as well as facts about the environment they live in like the extent of their roaming territory and dietary habits, and facts about their societies such as their average group size. Brain size and group size are closely related. Primate species that live in large groups have bigger brains. Environmental measures such as territory size and diet were unrelated.

Increased brain size led to language and what sets people apart from other species is the ability to seamlessly communicate ideas of arbitrary complexity. Members of a hunting party need to understand the intentions of others in the hunting party so that each can play their respective roles.

Sloan and Fernbach argue that we humans have the unique capability of shared intentionality. They argue that this ability is one that no other machine or cognitive system does: We can share our attention with someone else. When we interact with one another, we do not merely experience the same event; we also know we are experiencing the same event. And this knowledge that we are sharing our attention changes more than the nature of the experience; it also changes what we do and what we’re about to accomplish in conjunction with others.

Sloan and Fernbach contine, “Sharing attention is a crucial step on the road to being a full collaborator in a group sharing cognitive labor, in a community of knowledge. Once we can share attention, we can share common ground. We know some things that we know others know, and we know that they we know (and of course we know that they know that we know, etc.) The knowledge is not just distributed; it is shared. Once knowledge is shared in this way, we can share intentionality, we can jointly pursue a common goal. A basic human talent is to share intentions with others so that we can accomplish things collaboratively. HM thinks that Sloan and Fernbach are describing the ideal situation. It is not unusual for consultants and training to be required to make this happen. And many organizations continue to function in a state that is far from ideal.

Sloan and Fernbach note that the knowledge illusion is the flip side of what economists call the curse of knowledge. When we know something, we find it hard to imagine that someone else doesn’t know it. The curse of knowledge sometimes comes in the form of hindsight bias. “The curse of knowledge is that we tend to think what is in our heads is in the heads of others. In the knowledge illusion, we tend to think what is in others’ heads is in our heads. In both cases, we fail to discern who knows what.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

 

Why Are Our Brains So Large?

September 16, 2012

A recent article1 provides a possible answer. The article’s title is Social Network Size Linked to Brain Size. Perhaps the most prominent hypothesis is that our enlarged brains allow us to be smarter than our competitors. We are better at abstract thinking, better with tools (I am a personal exception here), and better at adapting our behavior than our prey and predators.

In 1992 anthropologist Robin Dunbar (Remember Dunbar’s Number? See healthymemory blog posts, “Why Is Facebook So Popular?”, and “How Many Friends are Too Many?”) published research showing that in primates the ratio of the size of the neo-cortex to that of the rest of the brain consistently increases with increases in the size of the social group. So the Tamarin monkey has a brain size ratio of around 2.3 and an average social group size of around 5 members, whereas a Macaque monkey has a brain size ratio of about 3.8 but a large average group size of around 40 members. Consequently, Dunbar advanced his “social brain hypothesis,” which states that the relative size of the neo-cortex rose as social groups became larger in order to maintain the complex set of relationships necessary for stable co-existence. Moreover, he suggested that given the human brain ratio we have an expected social group size of about 150, the size of what Dunbar called a clan.

Dunbar’s previous worked was focused on differences among species. His more recent work focuses on differences within species. He has found that the size of each individual’s social network is linearly related to the neural volume in the orbital prefrontal cortex. His research has shown that more than just more neural material in the prefrontal cortex is needed. Psychological skills are also needed, especially an ability to understand the other person’s state of mind. This cognitive skill is called a “theory of mind.”

So we have two explanations of why are brain’s are so large. One is that we are better at abstract thinking and adapting our behavior. The other is that the larger brain is needed to accommodate larger social networks that are beneficial to our survival. The astute healthymemory blog reader will likely quickly realize that these two hypotheses are not mutually exclusive. Most likely they are both at work.

1http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=social-network-size-linked-brain-size

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

The Adverse Effects of Social Isolation

October 23, 2011

Lonely people have a higher risk of everything from heart attacks to dementia, and from depression to death. However, people who are satisfied with their social lives sleep better, age more slowly and have more favorable responses to vaccines. John Cacioppo of the University of Chicago, an expert on the effects of social isolation, says that curing loneliness is as good for your health as giving up smoking. Charles Raison of Emory University studies mind-body interactions agrees with Cacioppo. He has said, “It’s probably the most powerful behavioral finding in the world. People who have rich social lives and warm open relationships don’t get sick and they live longer.”1

Although it is true that some people who are lonely might not take good care of themselves, Cacioppo states that there are direct physiological mechanisms that are related to the effects of stress. Cacioppo has found that genes involved in cortisol signaling and the inflammatory response are up-regulated in lonely people and that immune cells important in fighting bacteria were more active too. His conjecture is that our bodies might have evolved so that in situations of perceived social isolation, they trigger branches of the immune system involved in would healing and bacterial infection. On the other hand, people in a group might favor the immune response for fighting viruses, which are more likely to be spread among people living in close contact.

It is important to note that these differences relate most strongly to how lonely people believe themselves to be, rather than to the actual size of their social network. Cacioppo thinks that our attitude to others is key here. Lonely people become overly sensitive to social threats and see other people as potentially dangerous. In a review of previous studies that he published last year, he found that disabusing lonely people of this attitude reduced loneliness more effective than giving people more opportunities for interaction, or teaching social skills.2

Only one or two close friends might suffice if you are satisfied with your social life. Problems arise when you feel lonely.3 In the jargon of the Healthymemory Blog, this is largely a matter of transactive memory. Transactive memory refers to shared memories and of the knowledge one has of other memories. These memories can form as a result of person-to-person interactions or via means of technology, such as the internet. It should be noted that having hundreds of friends on Facebook would not necessarily indicate that you are not lonely. “What is important is the quality rather than the quantity of these relationships. An evolutionary biologist, Robin Dunbar, came up with a number he modestly named, “Dunbar’s number.” He bases this number on the size of the human brain and its complexity. He calculates that the maximum number of relationships our brain can keep track of at one time to be about 150 . This number includes all degrees of relationships. This is the maximum number of relationships. The number of close, meaningful relationships is much smaller. He estimates that we have a core group of about five people with whom we speak frequently. I find this absolute number a tad small, but to be in the general ballpark. At the other extreme there are about 100 people with whom we speak about once a year. The 150 number is an absolutely maximum of people we can even generously consider as friends. So Facebook users who have friended several hundred friends have essentially rendered the term “friend” meaningless.” (From the Healthymemory Blog post, “Why is Facebook So Popular?”, also see the Healthymemory Blog post “How Many Friends are Too Many?”).

1From “Trust People” in Heal Thyself by Marchant, J. (2011), New Scientist., 27 August, p. 35.

2Cacipoppo, J. (2010). Annals of Behaviorl Medicine, 40, p. 218.

3This part of this post was based heavily on the article by Marchant in the first footnote above.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2011. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Why is Facebook So Popular?

July 10, 2011

I am definitely confused. No only is there an enormous number of individual users, but companies, societies, organizations, television programs, and many other entities also feel a necessity to establish a presence on Facebook. Although most of these entities have good websites, they still feel compelled to maintain a Facebook presence.

Personally, I find regard Facebook to be an annoyance. It can be difficult to use, and I see little value in it. I have loads of requests from people I don’t know who indicate that they want to friend me. Early on, I consented because I did not want to be rude. Even now I worry that I might refuse the request of someone I did know long ago. I still accept requests from people who have been recommended by someone I know. But I do this only not to offend a true friend. I know of nothing that ever develops from this “friending.” With the exception of birthday greetings I receive from old acquaintances, I have seen nothing of value on Facebook. Just one inanity after another. I worry about people who do engage extensively in these activities.

I asked a friend of mine, who is extensively knowledgeable about cyberspace and who apparently spends significant time there, what he thinks about Facebook. His response was, “Never have touched it.  Who wants to be “connected” to everybody out there?!  Not me!”

I think he raises a good question. An earlier Healthymemory Blog post entitled “How Many Friends are Too Many?” addressed that very question. An evolutionary biologist, Robin Dunbar, came up with a number he modestly named, “Dunbar’s number.” He bases this number on the size of the human brain and its complexity. He calculates that the maximum number of relationships our brain can keep track of at one time to be about 150 . This number includes all degrees of relationships. This is the maximum number of relationships. The number of close, meaningful relationships is much smaller. He estimates that we have a core group of about five people with whom we speak frequently. I find this absolute number a tad small, but to be in the general ballpark. At the other extreme there are about 100 people with whom we speak about once a year. The 150 number is an absolutely maximum of people we can even generously consider as friends. So Facebook users who have friended several hundred friends have essentially rendered the term “friend” meaningless.

MIT social psychologist Sherry Turkle contends that social networking is eroding our ability to live comfortably offline.1 Although she makes a compelling argument, it is not the technology that is to be blamed, but rather how we use the technology. After all, the technology is not going to go away. There might be underlying psychological, genetic, or epigenetic substrates that contribute to the problem. Facebook, itself, can be regarded as providing affordances that contribute to this abuse.

1Price, M. (2011). Questionnaire; Alone in the Crowd. Monitor on Psychology, June, 26-28.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2011. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

How Many Friends Are Too Many?

November 7, 2010

There are people who boast of having more than a thousand friends on Facebook. A blogger once indicated that he was following over a thousand blogs. Does this make sense? An evolutionary biologist, Robin Dunbar, has come up with an hypothesis that provides an answer.1

The hypothesis is called the social intelligence hypothesis. Dunbar notes that social relationships make demands on cognition that are reflected in larger brains. Apes and monkeys are social animals that have a particularly large neocortex, a region of the brain that regulates language abilities, emotion, and the awareness of others. Our social relationships are much more complex and that is reflected in an even larger neocortex. Our brains consume about twenty percent of our energy. Dunbar has come up with a number called, oddly enough, “Dunbar’s number.” He bases this number on the size of the human brain and its complexity. He calculates that the maximum number of relationships our brain can keep track of at one tine to be about 150 . This number includes all degrees of relationships. He estimates that we have a core group of about five people that we speak with frequently. Personally, I find this number to be a tad low. At the other extreme we have about 100 acquaintaces we speak with about once a year. Although we can quibble about these numbers, I would hang my hat on 150 being the maximum number of people we can call friends.

If you count the number of friends you have had over a lifetime, you might well exceed 150. But it is likely that most of these friends have dropped out and you no longer interact with them regularly. Of course, you are glad to see them again and are happy to chat up old times. However, human relationships take time and cognitive resources, so the number of true friends with whom you interact is limited. Although you might have more acquaintances, know more people, they are probably not adequately characterized as friends.

I would argue that there is a trade-off between the number of friends you have and the quality of these friendships. The number of true friends you have might be much lower than the 150 maximum, but they are likely of high quality. Again, the limitation is one of cognitive resources.

I would also argue that online friends can well be true friends. But they make the same demands on resources and you should spend your cognitive resources wisely.

1Dunbar, R., (2010). How Many Friends Does One Person Need? Dunbar’s Number and Other Evolutionary Quirks. Harvard University Press.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2010. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.