Raquel del Moral */
/(Bioinformation Group, IACS)*


Some years ago in one of the FIS sessions (https://webmail.unizar.es/pipermail/fis/2006-March/001309.html), Pedro pointed at the triad "genotype-phenotype-sociotype" and emphasized the importance of a structure of social bonds around the individual. Precisely by developing further the Sociotype concept, as a new construct that describes both the structural & dynamic aspects of the individual's relationships, I am advancing a PhD Thesis. Also supported by a Ministry of Science and Innovation's biomedical project, our group is carrying out an empirical research work in order to develop a questionnaire able to measure the sociotype, the network of relationships of the person, in order to correlate it with mental health and risk (loneliness) situations.

Our work discusses the pertinence of a "sociotype" construct, both theoretically and empirically oriented. The term, based on the conceptual chain genotype-phenotype-sociotype, suggests the existence of an evolutionary 'preference' in the human species for some determined averages of social organization and communication relationships. Although human individuals become highly adaptive and resilient concerning the implementation of their sociality, a core pattern, or "sociotype" might be established for their networking relationships. The sociotype appears as a structural/relational pattern which is actively looked for, and the absence of which provokes predisposition towards feelings of loneliness and unhappiness. The prospect of establishing numerical characteristics for that pattern, both structural and dynamic, does not look too farfetched. Hypothesis such as the "social brain" have already advanced robust structural data. From the biomedical point of view, properly framing the sociotype hypothesis and putting it into empirical test could be a timely enterprise. As a number of contemporary studies on social networks have reported, perceived isolation and loneliness feelings turn out to be an unrewarding condition for individuals, an unwanted state, and also a risk factor for their health. In our times, the social changes derived from the economic globalization, the new communication technologies, and the demographic transition towards elderly populations have implied dramatic changes in the social relationships of entire communities. Given the absence of efficient psychosocial indicators, an empirical search on the relational phenomenon throughout the sociotype lens might provide useful orientations for mental health and quality of life policies.

Sociality is an obvious trait of the human species. Most of the evolutionary and cultural novelties of our past refer to essential aspects of sociality --e.g. origins of language, emotional communication, group behavior, morals and ethics, religious and legal codes, political institutions, and so on. Hypothesis such as the "social brain" have contributed to advance a new bond-centered approach on the evolutionary emergence of human sociality. The presence of a series of significant regularities in the size and structures of social groups, notwithstanding their remarkable variability, suggests the plausibility of a "deep structure" of social bonding for the human species. There seems to be an average of social networking, with very ample upper and lower limits, concerning the number and classes of bonding relationships that an individual is able to maintain meaningfully. The finding of networking regularities such as the famous "Dunbar's number" (150-200 individual acquaintances) makes a lot of evolutionary and anthropological sense.

The social brain hypothesis has posited that, in primate societies, selection has favored larger brains and more complex cognitive capabilities as a mean to cope with the challenges of social life. In primate societies, a tight correlation has been observed between the size of social groups and the neocortex relative proportion (roughly, "brain size"). Actually, the idea of relating brain size with the demands of communication in social life was already hinted by C. Darwin in "The Descent of Man" (1871). More than a century later, J. Allman and others reconsidered the idea and framed it as a social hypothesis. Also known as the Machiavellian intelligence hypothesis, it was more rigorously formulated by R. Dunbar (2004) and extended into other mental and biomedical fields (e.g. human language as a new form of social "grooming"). Although the hypothesis has been criticized from several grounds, and it is unclear whether it can be extended to the generality of mammalian societies, it has gained momentum regarding the evolutionary explanation of the natural groups and structures formed in human societies. In our work, the social brain views have been taken as one of the main references to structurally develop the sociotype hypothesis.

Our work departs from the social brain hypothesis concerning its empirical, or better, pragmatic orientation. Herein the emphasis will be put on elaborating a mental-health oriented construct, roughly exploring the potential applications of the sociotype as an indicator gauging the whole relational networks of the person, and how much daily conversation/communication he or she is engaged on a regular basis. Seemingly, rather than the exchange of functional information, it is trivial conversation, gossiping about social acquaintances what represents the human equivalent of primate grooming --subsequently stimulating in our "social brain" the production of endorphins, which relieve stress and boost the immune system. Thus, counting with an appropriate network of relationships that can provide us pieces of amusing conversation would be an essential ingredient to our social, psychological and physical well-being. Notwithstanding a number of recent studies on social networks (technologically oriented) that have tracked vast amounts of interpersonal exchanges, the metrics of the relational structures necessary for mental health and well-being have not been properly addressed yet. The hope is that the progressive delineation of a sociotype concept, pragmatically oriented, and susceptible of both theoretical and empirical demarcation, could contribute to a better understanding of the structures and dynamics of human sociality, and even provide some practical help when sociality itself is in crisis, as seem to be happening with the current "epidemics of loneliness" affecting large population tracts.

In our times the absence of social bonds has become a common experience: over 80% of children and 40% of those over 65 report feeling alone from time to time. Loneliness levels gradually decline in the middle years of adulthood and increase with age (reaching the maximum around age 70). The lack of social bonds has deleterious effects on health through its effect on the brain, the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA), vascular processes, blood pressure, gene transcription, inflammatory, immune, and sleep quality. Research indicates that perceived social isolation (i.e., loneliness) is a risk factor, and may contribute to poorer cognitive performance, greater cognitive impairment and poorer executive function and an increased negativity and depressive cognition that accentuate sensitivity to social threats. In fact, loneliness is associated not only with poor physical health; it also includes psychiatric conditions such as schizophrenia and personality disorders, suicidal thoughts, depression and Alzheimer.

In today's society there is a significant change in the way social relationships are maintained, for the intrusion of the new ITs adds to the important social disintegration that is occurring for other reasons (aging, migration, marginalization of minorities, etc.). In our times, relational networks are apparently larger and faster, but more transient and devoid of personal contact, so that individuals are at greater risk of social isolation. The evidence in fast-developing countries is that economic growth and technological development have gone hand-in-hand with an increase in mental and behavioral disorders, family disintegration, social exclusion, and lower social trust.

I have seen in some other sessions that some final questions help to focus the discussion; I will try with some easy ones:

1. Do you see pertinent the triad "genotype-phenotype-sociotype"?
2. Is there a species average on the number and classes of bonding relationships? 3. Is face-to-face conversation our fundamental way to actualize social bonds? 4. And what about the New Technologies relationships? Are they a surrogate or a helpful tool? Both?
5. Is loneliness exacerbated in contemporary societies?

Thanks! :)

Raquel del Moral
Grupo de Bioinformacion / Bioinformation Group

Instituto Aragonés de Ciencias de la Salud
Avda. San Juan Bosco 13, 50009 Zaragoza
Tfno. +34 976 71 44 76

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