Growing a social brain


It has long been assumed that social animals, such as humans, are born with a brain system that has evolved to support social affiliation. However, the evidence does not necessarily support this assumption. Alternatively, social animals can be defined as those who cannot survive alone and rely on members from their group to regulate their ongoing physiology (or allostasis). The rather simple evolutionary constraint of social dependency for survival can be sufficient to make the social environment vitally salient, and to provide the ultimate driving force for socially crafted brain development and learning. In this Perspective, we propose a framework for sociality and specify a set of hypotheses on the mechanisms of social development and underlying neural systems. The theoretical shift proposed here implies that profound human characteristics, including but not limited to sociality, are acquired at an early age, while social interactions provide key wiring instructions that determine brain development.

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Fig. 1: Growing a social brain.
Fig. 2: The anterior insula is a hub that integrates exteroceptive to interoceptive inputs.
Fig. 3: Concepts as predictions.
Fig. 4: Relationship between allostasis, concepts and social development.

Change history

  • 22 August 2018

    In the version of this Perspective originally published, at the end of the first paragraph of the section ‘Neural prediction as a potential mechanism for how experience sculpts the developing brain’ the citation to ref. 76 should have been to ref. 74, and at the end of the first sentence of the next paragraph ref. 76 should have been cited alongside ref. 74. These have now been corrected.


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We thank K. Toledano for his contribution to the illustrations.

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S.A., W.G. I.F. and L.F.B. contributed to writing the manuscript.

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Atzil, S., Gao, W., Fradkin, I. et al. Growing a social brain. Nat Hum Behav 2, 624–636 (2018).

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