Genes, Brains, and Being Social
The Gregarious Brain
New York Times Magazine, July 8, 2007
New York Times Magazine, July 8, 2007
(excerpts for discussion)
"If a person suffers the small genetic accident that creates Williams Syndrome, [s]he'll live with some fairly conventional cognitive deficits, like trouble with space and numbers, but also a strange set of traits that researchers call the Williams social phenotype or , less formally, the 'Williams personality': a love of company and conversation combined, often awkwardly, with a poor understanding of social dynamics and a lack of social inhibition.
The low IQ ... ignores two traits that define Williams more distinctively than do its deficits: an exuberant gregariousness and near-normal language skills ... appear to truly lack social fear ... see all faces as friendly ... fanciful verbosity accompanied by infectious affability
Because ... many of us feel uneasy with people with cognitive disorders, or for that matter with anyone profoundly unlike us ... people with Williams can have trouble deepening relationships ...
Developmental psychologists sometimes call the social urge 'the drive to affiliate.' ... the Williams deletion left it unfettered. But how do missing genes steer behavior toward gregariousness and engagement? ...
a central lesson of Williams and, for that matter, modern genetics: genes do not hard-wire people for certain behaviors. There is no gene for understanding calculus. But genes do shape behavior and personality, and they do so by creating brain structures and functions that favor certain abilities and appetites more than others ... M.I.T math majors aren't born doing calculus and people with Williams don't enter life telling stories ... 'It's not just 'genes make brain make behavior.' You have environment and experience too.'
As an experiment of nature, Williams syndrome makes clear that while we are innately drive to connect with others, this affiliative drive alone will not win this connection ... To bond with others we must show not just charm but sophisticated cognitive skills ...
gossip accounts for about two-thirds of our conversation. All this yakking - murmured asides in the kitchen, gripefests in the office coffee room - yields vital data about changing alliances; shaking machinations; new, wished-for and missed opportunities; falling kinds and rising stars; dangerous rivals and potential friends. These conversations tell us ... what our gossipmates think about it all, and about us, all of which is crucial to maintaining our own alliances ... For we are all gossiped about, constantly evaluated by two criteria: Whether we can contribute, and whether we can be trusted. Your teammates hope you'll contribute skills and intergroup competitive spirit - without, however, offering too much competition within the group, or at least not cheating when you do. They know you can't afford not to compete, and worry you might do it sneakily.
The bigger the neocortex, the higher the rate of deceptive behavior. Our extra-big brains allow us to balance bonding and maneuvering in more subtle and complicated ways ... People with Williams, however, don't do this so well.
One of the most vexing questions raised by both Williams research and the social-brain thesis is whether our social behavior is driven more by the urge to connect or the urge to manipulate the connection ...
It is possible, in short, that people with Williams miss social subtleties not just because they lack cognitive tools but because they also lack a motivation - fear of others - that the rest of us carry to every encounter ...
The dissociation of so many elements in Williams - the cognitive from the connective, social fear from non-social fear, the tension between the drive to affiliate and the drive to manipulate - highlights how vital these elements are and, in most of us, how delicately, critically entwined ..."