Robin Dunbar – How our Ancient Brains cope with Modern Society

Apr 6, 2020 | Mental Health, Visionary Men


Robin Dunbar is a British Anthropologist and Professor of Evolutionary Psychology at the Department of Experimental Psychology, Oxford University.

His research is concerned with trying to understand the behavioural, cognitive and neuroendocrinological mechanisms that underpin social bonding in primates (in general) and humans (in particular). His understanding has given insights into how humans have managed to create large scale societies using a form of psychology that is evolutionarily adapted to very small scale societies, and why these mechanisms are less than perfect in the modern world.

This has implications for the design of social networking sites as well as mobile technology. An important feature of his team’s behavioural studies has been the constraints that time places on an individual’s ability to manage their relationships.

Robin’s research spans some five decades in studying the sociality in primates and other mammals with numerous published works, and he has authored 16 books including:

How many Friends Does One Person Need?: Dunbar’s Number and Other Evolutionary Quirks

Human Evolution: Our Brains and Behaviour

The Human Story

The Science of Love and Betrayal

“One of the  big surprises that has come out of the woodwork in the past 15 years has been the extent to which the number and quality of friends you have is the single best predictor of how healthy you are going to be, how quickly you recover from minor diseases, how quickly you recover from surgery and even how long you live “. 

– robin dunbar

robin and I discussed the following in this episode:

  • How Robin first became interested in psychology and sciences and originally animal behaviour.

  • His later interest in human behaviour and neural machinery of the brain and relationships.

  • How little brains have changed in the last 3000-4000 years and why major changes take over 100,000 years.

  • The difference between those that live in the tropics vs those that live in the northern hemisphere and why this difference is relatively new.

  • How the brain is slightly different because of this and why it’s a fast change.

  • Why technology has meant that people are not learning social skills that allow the social world to work, the danger of online echo chambers in which you don’t learn these skills.

  • The consequences of this online world not being known for another generation.

  • How technology has started to change the brains of young people but also how knowledge can also change brain parts i.e. hippocampus – London Taxi Drivers.

  • The nature of small scale societies and why this is would have historically removed anonymity and promoted communities acting in a ‘self-policing’ way.

  • The population boom which created nation states and why this loss of a ‘face to face’ society has created anonymity at the same time as dissatisfaction via comparison on social media.

  • Why the antidote to anonymity and large scale societies is to develop close relationships within your own community.

  • The satisfaction of offline interactions backed up by study.

  • Why the conversation around longevity is shifting from diet towards community and face to face connectivity.

  • How studies have shown that the number and quality of friends you have is the single biggest predictor of how healthy you will be but you have to invest in this.

  • The difference between men and women’s social style and why men gravitate towards clubs.

  • Why the attempt to change boys and girls social psyche could be a step in the right direction and how you see this in primate groups too.

  • The mental rather than physical stresses that people now face in larger scale societies and why you see less mental health issues in smaller scale societies

  • How the quality of your life will be determined by the quality of your relationships.

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