Community spirit is the fabric of life in Harfield Village. But what exactly is community spirit and how does our brain allow us to have it?
By Dr Samantha J. Brooks Ph.D.
The social brain is supported by a network of regions functioning together that enable mentalising, or the ability to understand how we might be perceived by others. It also enables us to empathise with how another might feel, even if they are of a different age, gender or cultural background. Mentalising is sometimes also known as Theory of Mind, which means being able to imagine the mind of another person or a group of people. This is the basis of community spirit, allowing us to think about how our behaviour might be perceived within the neighbourhood and adapting to emerging norms. Theory of mind also allows us to police ourselves, for example, by not playing music loudly because it might annoy our neighbours, or not letting our garbage overflow into the street. But also, mentalising, or Theory of Mind, allows us to empathise about how others feel when engaging in activities in the neighbourhood, such as the pleasure of walking one’s dog in the park, joining local public events, or enjoying our local top-class cafes and restaurants.
The main areas of the brain that function to allow us to have a strong sense of community spirit include: the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC), the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC), the amygdala and related reward/arousal regions (such as the striatum, insula and hippocampus), and the anterior and posterior cingulate cortex (ACC/PCC), which is a ‘collar’ of grey matter that encircles the midbrain structures. The advanced areas of the visual cortex, such as the fusiform gyrus and the precuneus enable us to recognise familiar faces in the street. So, the next time you see Lew Norgarb in his tuk-tuk, you’ll know that these visual cortex areas in your brain will be at work! Modern neuroimaging techniques allow us to model what happens when these brain areas don’t function as well as they should. For example, when the mPFC is damaged or has not developed properly, as in the case of folk living with autism, people struggle with Theory of Mind. That means, that it is difficult to empathise with the feelings of others, which can, in milder cases, underlie social anxiety. Also, an excessively functioning arousal system (incorporating the amygdala, striatum and hippocampus), which is experienced by those people struggling with the ravages of addiction, might seem to act in a selfish way. But in essence they have (temporarily) lost the ability to engage executive prefrontal cortex functions that enable one to consider the perspective of others. The good news is – as I have said before – our brains are very flexible, and so we can learn to strengthen the connections supporting our social brain!
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