I was going to leave this as a comment on Luke‘s blog, but it got a little too long. Luke’s post “Stone age brains and the social web” is based on the “All In The Mind” podcast episode “Stone Age brains in 21st century skulls.” Luke’s blog provides some great insights on user experience, and the Australian “All In The Mind” podcast features interviews with a diverse range of Psychologists. This is a bit of a woven path, but it is interesting when it comes together. Hopefully you can see where this is going – If you can, hold on to the wheel.

The podcast makes a number of interesting points from the evolutionary psychology perspective. The whole reptile brain things doesn’t work for me, but many of the points can be made from other perspectives too, and they resonated with some of my recent observations about technology.

The general consensus is that we are adapted to living in small groups – 20-200 individuals – with lifelong interaction within those small groups. Today’s environment is dramatically different, for all sorts of reasons. The Internet enables us to interact with millions, if not thousands, of individuals – how meaningfully is another question. Communications technology has also made business more global and employees more mobile. Being born, living and dying in the same town is a very rare life journey these days (it would be interesting to have a good data source on this).

Brain chemistry has become the primary approach to mental health issues, by which point things are at a severe stage. I wonder if we are too focussed on treating symptoms, rather than causes (Bob Eckridge has some interesting thoughts in this area on his blog). Another approach is to assume that we are maladapted to our environment, and see what we can do to change in it, and ourselves.

Evolutionary psychology is a curious beast, and I think a fair few Psychs would debate the reptilian brain idea. However, there are other perspectives that help us understand what is going on. Social constructivism is a different psychological approach. It argues that we create our idea of who we are through our social interactions (identity is a rather complex issue), and that we also create knowledge that way. That starts to make a lot of sense out of social networking and software.

Thinking about identity as rooted in who we interact with, and how we interact with them, starts to enable the creation of some useful software applications. Creating interactions (on and offline) that enable people to express their identity is an essential part of building a community – just take a look at people’s facebook profile pictures, then get them to talk to you about them, and you’ll see what I mean.

We are, whichever psychological perspective you take, social beings. Isolation does us no good, at least not beyond short bursts. So far, technology has enabled us to be more ‘connected’, but actually resulted in us being more isolated (one-way media such as TV, physical social isolation such as Internet enabled remote working). Social software to the rescue, hopefully!