The Society for Neuroscience just finished its annual meeting, so get ready to have lots of knowledge about brains dropped into your brain. Here you go, I'll facilitate: several fascinating new studies have just come out examining the links between social status and specific brain structures and activity. They show that position in social hierarchy can influence decision-making, motivation, and physical and mental health; they pretty much all indicate that it's good to be king (in a stable social environment).
Previous studies have shown that dominant rats produce more brain cells and have better cognition than subordinate rats. A new study presented at Neuroscience 2013 by Dr. Maya Opendak of Princeton University has found that this is only true only as long as you're on top. Opendek's team created two hermetic environments for rats that facilitated a social hierarchy. After all the rats were accustomed to their position, the neuroscientists swapped out the two alpha rats and discovered that the new unstable social environment entirely counteracted the positive effects of being dominant, leaving the animals unable to adapt and cope with stress. In fact, "all rats [not just the Boss Rats] living in the unstable society produced fewer brain cells than rats living in stable conditions." This is exactly what happened when Kristen Cavallari replaced L.C. on The Hills, if you need a real-life example.
Another study by Dr. Maryann Noonan of Oxford found that humans in possession of a large friend network and good social skills have certain brain regions that are bigger, better connected to other regions and more developed — but it remains unclear which comes first. Does having a lot of friends give you bigger brain regions, or does having bigger brain regions cause you to make a lot of friends with more ease?
A third study focused less on the link between social status and brain function and more on the ways in which our social behavior is influenced by specific regions of our brain. It was presented by Dr. Keren Haroush of Harvard, and it finds that the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), which is a brain region associated with anticipation and decision-making, activates when a monkey is about to make a cooperative decision instead of a selfish one. In addition, disrupting the ACC with electrical micro-stimulation led to the breakdown of mutual cooperation between primates. Haroush hypothesizes that the ACC might be "a potential locus of problems in disorders such as autism and anti-social behavior in which difficulty with social interactions are a prominent feature," and she suggests that deep-brain stimulation of the ACC can be used as a potential treatment.
All of these findings are very interesting; they're also potentially quite helpful. As one of the conference's moderators Dr. Larry Young put it: "This information could lead to new treatments [but] it also calls on us to evaluate how we construct social hierarchies — whether in the workplace or school — and their impacts on human well-being." If stressful social hierarchies can quite literally cause us to lose brain cells, we might want to rethink the ways in which certain institutions are structured. On a lighter note, the idea that forming new friendships can make your brain bigger is a really good excuse to go out on a work night.
"New Links Between Social Status and Brain Activity" [Society for Neuroscience]
Image via Eduard Harkonen/Shutterstock.