Researchers supported by the Wellcome Trust have discovered that we use a different part of our brain to learn about social hierarchies than we do to learn ordinary information. The study provides clues as to how this information is stored in memory and also reveals that you can tell a lot about how good somebody is likely to be at judging social rank by looking at the structure of their brain.
Primates (and people) are remarkably good at ranking each other within social hierarchies, a survival technique that helps us to avoid conflict and select advantageous allies. However, we know surprisingly little about how the brain does this.
The team at the UCL Institute for Cognitive Neuroscience used brain imaging techniques to investigate this in twenty six healthy volunteers.
Participants were asked to play a simple science fiction computer game where they would be acting as future investors. In the first phase they were told they would first need to learn about which individuals have more power within a fictitious space mining company (the social hierarchy), and then which galaxies have more precious minerals (non-social information).
Whilst they were taking part in the experiments, the team used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to monitor activity in their brains. Another MRI scan was also taken to look at their brain structure.
Their findings reveal a striking dissociation between the neural circuits used to learn social and non-social hierarchies. They observed increased neural activity in both the amygdala and the hippocampus when participants were learning about the hierarchy of executives within the fictitious space mining company. In contrast, when learning about the non-social hierarchy, relating to which galaxies had more mineral, only the hippocampus was recruited.
They also found that those who were better at learning the social hierarchy had an increased volume of grey matter in the a
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