A UCLA researcher studying the biological basis for our egocentric tendencies has found that certain areas of the brain prime individuals to think about themselves.
Matthew Lieberman, a professor of psychology at UCLA, co-authored a paper with Meghan Meyer from Dartmouth College earlier this month that showed specific brain regions that are activated when people zone out. Brain activity in these regions causes them to think about who they are and how they fit into social networks.
This specific set of brain regions – called the default network – can be activated hundreds of times throughout the day whenever something from the external environment is not actively demanding attention, Lieberman said. These moments include the times when an individual is sitting in bed before they fall asleep, when they are waiting in the elevator and in between doing math problems.
Participants in the study who had more activity in the default network while resting were able to answer questions about themselves faster than those with less activity. This showed that people are unconsciously and consciously thinking about themselves when at rest.
“It happens that the brain regions (in the default network) are also heavily associated with social thinking,” Meyer said.
Lieberman said he became interested in the topic after building on two separate observations in previous neuroscience research. Some neuroscientists found that the medial prefrontal cortex, a part of the default network, is consistently activated when the brain is at rest, and others found that the MPFC is involved in self and social processing.
“I wanted to see if I could show that (the default network) was doing something that actually helped us be better in the social world that we have to navigate all the time,” he said.
Although the default network expends a large amount of the brain’s resources, Lieberman said he believes that thinking socially is crucial to human success.
“It turns out that getting along in the social world is far more important for survival than a having a high IQ,” he said. “We are a species that got ahead more because of our ability to navigate the world together than individually.”
Meyer said humans needed to maintain social relationships to survive and an evolved neural network would allow them to do so.
“We needed to have friends to rely on for resources, we need our mothers for milk,” she said. “It makes sense we have these mechanisms to assess ‘Do we fit in? Who are we?'”
Lieberman said the social skills the brain evolved continue to be important in the modern world.
“People get hired for their technical skills and get fired for their social skills,” Lieberman said.
Neuroscientists have only recently begun to study the default network, Meyer said. She added the brain regions were once considered a lazy network by many researchers, who thought it distracted the brain from more important cognitive tasks.
“We’re finally started to link what goes on at rest with thinking about yourself and other people,” she said.
Meyer added she thinks the default network might partly contribute to individuals’ egocentric tendencies.
“If we didn’t have a network that prompted us to be self-focused, we wouldn’t have a society full of people being selfish and self-focused,” Lieberman said.