What Makes Our “Social Brain” Special?

OUR HUMBLE BEGINNINGS

In order to understand how we got to where we are, it’s important to look back at how we got here, something Yuval Noah Harari explores in his international bestseller “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind.” It’s clear today that our brains are the result of both ecological and social influences. While natural evolution is fueled by the survival of the fittest between generations, societies and cultural knowledge evolve constantly within our lifetimes.


About 70,000 to 30,000 years ago, the appearance of new ways of thinking and communicating ignited what Harari dubs the “cognitive revolution.” The development of language allowed us to warn each other about nearby lions, share the location of bison to hunt, and learn from each other in ways no other species could.

Becoming a social animal inevitably led to more complex, abstract conversations as well. Harari says that in our new social groups, “It’s much more important to know who in their band hates whom, who is sleeping with whom, who is honest, and who is a cheat.” The ability to gossip and talk behind people’s backs allowed us to navigate social relationships, identify who we could trust, and develop tighter, more sophisticated types of cooperation. “As far as we know, only Sapiens [humans] can talk about entire kinds of entities that they have never seen, touched, or smelled.” While today our gossip does seem to have got a little out of hand, as we began exploring new ways to understand the world around us, we ended up inventing fiction.

The creation of fiction and intersubjective beliefs gave us the ability to cooperate and communicate on today’s global scale. We weren’t just talking about a fruit tree anymore; we were talking about why the tree exists, what it does, how we can use it, and how it changes. In applying this way of thinking to society, we developed codes of law, standardized currency, organized religion, and representative governance.

These intersubjective beliefs, existing only within our combined subjective consciousness, run today’s societies and are one of our most uniquely human characteristics. Money isn’t real, except for the fact that we all agree it is real. If we cleared the slate and reran the cognitive revolution, we might be trading instead with clamshells and back rubs. Intersubjective beliefs helped us exceed the 150-person threshold, cooperating with people we’ve never met before, because they use the same money as us, follow the same god as us, or support the same sports teams as us. Intersubjective beliefs gave us the ability to quickly trust strangers without developing intimate relationships. Our trust in intersubjective beliefs drives our social evolution, giving us the power to work together on a global scale.

OUR CURRENT UNDERSTANDING

The more we talked over the last 70,000 years, the better we got at it. Today, we live in societies that are so complex and interconnected we need supercomputers to help us understand them. We have worked together and pooled our knowledge to produce incredible technologies that have revolutionized our world. Have bad eyesight? Buy some glasses. Lose your leg in a tragic accident? We have prosthetics. Develop a life-threatening cancer? We have entire hospitals of people working together to help you survive.

We live all live in the middle of a global social system dependent on cooperating with complete strangers on a daily basis. Just think of the number of people that had to work together to get that Venti Caramel Macchiato into your hand. From the farmers and laborers harvesting and refining the raw materials, the people transporting them around the globe, the baristas putting it all together, or the businessmen in Seattle organizing it all: hundreds if not thousands of people had to work together for you to enjoy your morning routine for just $4.75. Cooperation’s a beautiful thing.


Our advanced cognitive abilities do make us special, and our disproportionately large neocortex defines us in many ways. We are a biological anomaly, yet we’re just as much a part of this planet’s biological history as everything else on our planet. It’s clear that we have a disproportional influence on this planet and its inhabitants because of what makes us unique. We have achieved unimaginable accomplishments by combining our knowledge and cooperating on a global scale. It’s easy to be pessimistic and see the negatives in our society. We still have much to learn. However, it’s healthy to remind ourselves that what makes us unique isn’t our ability to cause harm — it’s our ability to come together and help each other out.

This article was originally published in the Spring 2018 issue of Brain World Magazine.

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