Belonging to a community can have a huge, positive impact on your happiness. Perhaps that’s why, according to a newly-released study, our brains are always preparing for our next social engagement—be it seeing a friend, logging on to Facebook, or joining a workout group—even when we’re at rest.
Previous research had shown that the part of the brain known as the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex “fires” between answering problem-solving questions, but there wasn’t a clear reason for why. A new study published by Dr. Matthew Lieberman and Dr. Robert Spunt at UCLA’s Ahmanson-Lovelace Brain Mapping Center in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, explored that question and showed that, during this “in between” time, the brain is trying to focus on the minds of others.
In the study, the researchers showed subjects a series of photos while they were in a fMRI machine (which tracks brain activity) to see if their brains reacted differently depending on the picture they saw. A participant might see the same photo three separate times, each time with different captions. For instance, the first photo might show a man standing, with a caption describing his action. The second photo would have a caption describing his mood, The third photo would have a caption featuring an unrelated mathematical equation. The subjects were then asked to determine if the caption was representative of the photo (this was the problem-solving step).
The dorsomedial prefrontal cortex lit up only when subjects were waiting for the next photo or when they saw a photo with the caption describing a mood. The fact that the brain lit up when it saw an emotion makes enough logical sense, but why in between photos? Lieberman told the UCLA Newsroom he believes it’s because, “It is getting us ready to see the world socially in terms of other people’s thoughts, feelings and goals. That indicates it is important; the brain doesn’t just turn systems on. We walk around with our brain trying to reset itself to start thinking about other minds.”
He continues, “When I want to take a break from work, the brain network that comes on is the same network we use when we’re looking through our Facebook timeline and seeing what our friends are up to. That’s what our brain wants to do, especially when we take a break from work that requires other brain networks.”
For more, here’s Dr. Lieberman’s TED talk on the power of the social brain: