We’re all different although we’re born with the same brain. Some people could be perfectly comfortable being the center of attention of a group of people but some would rather enjoy solitude and being alone. “Our brain wiring could be dictating our social behaviors,” says neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett, a University Distinguished Professor of Psychology at Northeastern University.
For decades, scientists have assumed that the brain circuitry for social behavior has developed over millions of years of evolution and is hardwired at birth. That assumption is challenged in a paper released by Barrett, who suggests that babies are not born with the circuitry for social behavior. Instead, that circuitry is created during infancy and childhood as the brain wires itself in response to caregivers, culture, and social environment.
“The infant’s brain is not a miniature adult brain; it needs wiring instructions from the world,” said Barrett. The early infant stages and the situations and circumstances a baby or child grows up in becomes the shaping factors of the brain. This kind of social wiring is uniquely developed for each person.
During early development, infants rely on caregivers to maintain allostasis- the process of achieving stability against stress generating situations- for them by providing the proper food, temperature, and social contact. This is what the brain is designed to do. Barrett contends that the brain’s primary function is not thinking, but anticipating the needs of the body and meeting those needs before they arrive. This is how allostasis is maintained efficiently. “Your brain is actively allocating resources like water, salt, and glucose. You can think of your brain as your body’s chief financial officer, moving resources around to achieve the best results” says Barrett.
Because infants are incapable of surviving on their own, they are entirely dependent on their caregivers. Their survival depends on forming close bonds with those caregivers and eventually learning their way of perceiving and functioning in the world. The paper asserts that human nervous circuitry is not identical. The micro wiring in each brain is created in response to experiences during infancy and childhood. So, a child’s brain will develop differently depending on how attentive her parents are, whether she lives in poverty, and which culture she grows up in.
“It’s not a single hypothesis, but a whole framework that guides the questions researchers ask, the experiments they perform, and how they interpret data,” she said. “We’re replacing the old framework with a new one that has new and better questions.”