Think for a moment about all of the areas of the brain that are activated by interacting with other people.
Brain scientists know about many of these brain skills by working with people who have social deficits that are thought to be secondary to cognitive deficits such as after a brain injury or in conditions such as autism and schizophrenia.
Let’s start by thinking about all of the brain areas involved in holding a simple conversation.
· Sensory cortices – To hold a conversation, most notably your auditory cortex is activated as you listen to what the other person is saying. This is true even when talking over the phone. In person, you are also likely activating your visual cortex and perhaps even your somatosensory (or tactile) cortex and olfactory (smell) cortex.
· Language areas – Structures in the left temporal lobes translate auditory input into language that you can comprehend (left side for most people). Corresponding structures on the “non-language-dominant” side of the brain (typically the right) process the “prosodic” or melodic parts of the speech we hear, such as someone’s inflection or intonation. To produce speech, a whole other set of structures in the frontal lobe has to become activated. This is the area responsible for those “senior moments” when you can’t access a word that is on the tip of your tongue. These seem to be more related to language function than memory, so maybe you can stop beating up on your memory when you have these moments.
· Structures for Emotion Perception and Emotional Sensation – Beyond language structures, other brain areas are devoted to reading body language and facial expression. Then there is the limbic system that, as you’ve been learning about, triggers all sorts of emotional impulses from fear and anxiety to even excitement, love and attachment. The insula (an entirely different structure deep inside the crack that runs along the side of the brain, separating the temporal lobe form the frontal and parietal lobes), has been implicated in supporting empathy and bonding.
· Memory Structures – Think about how much you rely on your memory in a simple conversation. Not only is the whole set of structures involved in “encoding” new memories active when we are learning about the other person, but structures responsible for accessing old memories and for what we call “working memory” are also quite active. Working memory is a short-term memory platform where we hold information just long enough to either use it or manipulate it in some way. This is where you store that idea you wanted to bring up as you’re listening to the other person talk.
· Frontal Lobes – As you’ve been learning, frontal lobes are the CEO of our brain’s. They help us act in socially appropriate ways by inhibiting inappropriate behaviors while also helping us plan and stay organized, including organizing our thoughts during a conversation.
Now that is just what’s going on during a simple conversation, think about what all is involved in other activities that we tend to engage in when we are active socially.
· Planning to get together – Typically the best relationships rely on frequently getting together with other people, and while you can rely somewhat on happenstance interactions, most relationships require some sort of planning to get together. Whether you are hosting a guest at your place or planning to meet up somewhere, this exercise in socialization requires organizational skills, memory, and even language skills to communicate effectively about your plan. Using external memory aids, like a calendar, datebook and/or address book, can also be important when staying socially active.
· Deciding What to Do and Where to Go – Remembering that new restaurant you’ve been wanting to try, searching on the internet for ideas and deals, or calling up a friend for recommendations all seem to activate the brain. One brain imaging study showed increased brain activation across several regions in older adults after learning how to search the internet.
· Getting There – The parietal lobe and other sections of the non-language-dominant (typically right) hemisphere are important for understanding our surroundings and getting ourselves around. People with damage to the right parietal lobe, often cannot perceive where things are in space, cannot understand a map or are not aware of significant sections of their surroundings. Navigating to where you need to go to meet up with friends, attend a party or lecture or any other social event, can keep circuits in this part of the brain well exercised. If you need an extra challenge, try doing it without using a GPS!
· Cooking – If you are cooking a meal for a guest or even your partner, think of all of the different brain skills that are involved in planning the meal, organizing the ingredient list for shopping, visually searching for ingredients while shopping, and budgeting your purchase. On top of that there are all of the organization, timing, attention switching, working memory, memory and even reading comprehension (if you’re working off of a recipe) skills involved in preparing the food. Cooking can be an intense brain exercise, which is probably why a lot of people avoid it, but in the spirit of brain fitness, you may choose to challenge yourself in this area at times.
Now intensive studies of brain activation during all of these tasks have not been performed yet, and we are not sure that this is THE mechanism that associates being socially active with better brain health. But considering these connections, in addition to the support gained by being socially active, you can see why this is can be an important area of brain fitness to cultivate.