Bat friends, monkeys sharing, and humans holding hands: the brains of social animals synchronize and expand one another.
Humans are not the only creatures with a clear understanding of social norms. If a group of adult male rhesus monkeys (Macaca mulatta) find themselves sitting around a rotating table with food, they will display the ethos ‘I scratch your back, you scratch mine. One monkey will give another piece of fruit and expect the action to be reciprocated. If this gift is unavailable, the first monkey may retaliate by refusing to give up anything in its time. Monkeys also like to gather together in groups; when they see one monkey being kind to another, they show kindness to the first monkey. On closer inspection, it looks like a group of friends buying drinks at a bar.
Although decades of research have dispelled the myth that human habitation is different from our species, scientists are still unclear about how each animal stores information about the ‘social’ structure in which it is embedded. Do monkeys copy and share food in a sophisticated way of making a mirror? Or do they keep track of their behavior and that of others to make decisions within the sphere of social change?
Over the years, biologists have used a variety of lenses to try to answer these questions. While 19th-century paleontologists looked at animal behavior by focusing on their psychological and biological aspects, it was not until after the remarkable work of zoologists such as Nikolaas Tinbergen and Karl von Frisch in the 1930s that the field returned to its focus on human behavior. The terms of evolution can explain it.
Following the emergence of modern ethology, instruction – the study of animal behavior – is left with two main ways of asking questions about the social life of animals. Another approach is taking data from local animal experiments, trying to understand the evolving group by looking at the ‘inside out. Yet this makes it difficult to understand what is happening inside each creature’s mind. In contrast, the second method is based on finding the function of the human brain and then trying to draw a map between neuronal spiking patterns or shooting – the circulating electrical activity that produces brain waves – and how the animal works. However, this data comes from ‘the inside out and often struggles to consolidate group power. Both of these frames usually take an incomplete picture.
Now a new generation of scientists is pushing for a third, more nuanced paradigm to study animal behavior. Known as ‘collective neuroscience,’ this research program is based on the idea that the brain evolved primarily to help animals exist as part of a social group – rather than solve problems on our own – and should be studied as such. Since embedding the brain within a social structure changes how it interacts with other brains, it does not make sense to read the minds of each individual because it does not give a complete picture. Based on the idea that intelligence is a dynamic cause and effect among multiple brains, researchers drew on the latest neuroimaging techniques to gain a more detailed understanding of the brain structures of many animals as they engage in different social activities. Hopefully, this can lead us to answers about how animals perceive their social world and how that concept is written neurally.