The secrets of human social behaviour: What bats can teach us about our brains

The brain's dual role: Navigating space and social connections


Researchers have discovered that the brains of bats may hold the key to unraveling the mysteries of human social behavior. This surprising revelation challenges traditional notions of how our brains are wired for social interactions. The study, conducted by scientists at the University of California, Berkeley, sheds light on the intricate interplay between our brains' navigation systems and our ability to thrive in social groups.

For years, neuroscientists have been fascinated by the brain's navigation system, known as the hippocampus. It's the mental GPS that helps us find our way around familiar environments. Imagine strolling through your neighborhood or commuting to work - individual neurons in your hippocampus are firing to tell you where you are. But what if this mental map also contains crucial information about the people around you?

Surprisingly, this is precisely what the researchers discovered when they eavesdropped on the brains of Egyptian fruit bats. As these bats flew freely within a spacious flight room, they didn't just use their hippocampus for navigation; they used it to navigate social dynamics as well.

As we look to the skies and marvel at the mysterious world of bats, we realise that their secrets may hold the key to unlocking our understanding of the human brain. 

Bats as social pioneers

In this remarkable journey into the world of bats, we find that sometimes, to truly understand ourselves, we must first learn from the creatures that inhabit the night.

Much like humans, bats are highly social creatures. They form intricate social networks, cooperate in various tasks, and even have preferences for certain individuals within their colonies. The study's lead author, Angelo Forli, was initially skeptical about whether observing bats in a flight room would yield insights into the neural basis of collective behavior. However, to his surprise, the bats established specific resting spots and followed consistent flight trajectories, showcasing precise patterns of social behavior.

"These bats demonstrated that they're not just randomly flying around. They spend time with specific individuals and have preferred places they like to go," Forli explained.

What makes this study particularly fascinating is its emphasis on observing animals in their natural setting rather than in artificial laboratory conditions. For half a century, neuroscience research has primarily focused on single animals navigating empty boxes, far removed from the natural behavior these brains have evolved to promote.

Michael Yartsev, the senior author of the study, stressed the importance of this natural approach. "Our findings suggest that there is a lot that can be learned when neuroscience research focuses on natural behavior," he said.

Understanding human social behaviour

So, how does this all relate to our understanding of human social behavior? The findings from bat brains challenge conventional wisdom. They hint that our own hippocampus might do more than just help us find our way; it might also play a crucial role in deciphering the social world around us.

"Our episodic memories are a combination of the environment where we are located and our experiences within it - including, of course, our social experiences," Yartsev pointed out. This connection could provide valuable insights into why damage to the hippocampus in humans has been linked to both social and spatial aspects of memory loss in neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer's.

This study reminds us that nature is the best laboratory for understanding ourselves. By studying bats and their natural behavior, scientists have taken a leap forward in comprehending the intricate dance of neurons that underlies our social interactions.