After my weekend exploring the Musee du Louvre, going to the Women’s World Cup, and riding my umpteenth trip on the metro, I noticed that my go to activity while I explore is people watching. People watching, in its purest form, is the idea of observing other people in a public setting. We all do it, whether we are aware of it or not, and it has a variety of results from my own experience as a seasoned player.
People watching takes on a different form where you are; you can get away with more than a glance at a sporting event like the Women’s World Cup than you can in a cramped metro where everyone is trying, and sometimes not trying at all, to look at everything but the five different people close enough to count eyelashes. Even in those situations, you cannot help but take a millisecond scan of your surroundings just in case in you miss out on something compelling.
This is a part of everyday life and a hobby that I do almost daily. We’re doing the opposite of what we usually do when we people watch; instead of blocking out majority of the stimuli we encounter on a daily basis we take the time to take in every detail as it crosses our path. I started to wonder how people watching is so enjoyable despite the cacophony of stimuli we take in when we do this activity.
It turns out that people watching requires activation in three different brain networks to during people watching (Quadflieg & Koldewyn, 2017). For example, the person perception network (PPN) is a brain network of brain structures that examine a person’s individual appearance and the way they move which is important to decipher an overall person to person encounter (Quadflieg & Koldewyn, 2017). One specific brain area in the PPN that supports the PPN’s overall function is the posterior superior temporal sulcus (pSTS), but it was not explicitly seen that the pSTS was active while observing social interactions until one 2018 study (Walbrin, Downing, & Koldewyn, 2018).
To test the pSTS activation, the researchers asked fifty-five participants to view human like figures in two 8-second scenarios for multiple trials: one scenario had two figures socially interacting and the second scenario had the two figures doing independent activities (Walbrin, Downing, & Koldewyn, 2018). The researchers used fMRIs to compare pSTS activity when the participants viewed social interactions verse when the participants viewed individual actions. After testing, the researchers found that the right pSTS had a significantly higher activation as the participants viewed the figures interacting with each other compared to when the participants viewed figures doing individual activities (Walbrin, Downing, & Koldewyn, 2018).
It’s great that the researchers recorded pSTS activation from people seeing direct social interaction because it helps focus further directions into how social patterns change when people have conditions that affect the pSTS. The researchers even looked at other brain areas thought to assist in people watching but in a different capacity than just surface level observations of the interaction. The researchers added a control where they examined the temporoparietal junction (TPJ). The TPJ helps in assigning people’s intentions with one another from what we observe, but it does not work on a board scale in analyzing social interactions verse individual interactions like the researchers predicted the pSTS to do (Quadflieg & Koldewyn, 2017).
While this control helped the researchers determine if pSTS functions specifically while viewing social interactions, an experiment looking into nonhuman subjects’ that have areas similar to the pSTS inhibited or lesioned with provide more concrete evidence to the pSTS functioning examining social interactions or people watching.
Nevertheless, it is still interesting how we have multiple brain networks and brain structures involved to help us understand what we are looking at as we scan our surroundings and the people within it.
In my opinion, people watching is a great skill to have especially in places you’ve never been to before. By watching the people around interacting with each other and their surroundings, I’m able to pick up on what’s acceptable and what’s not. Especially in Paris, I’m trying to do everything I can to blend in and not expose myself as the Lost American, a title I still haven’t been able to shake off.
Even so, everyone still has instances where social cues fall through the cracks. It is those times when you realize that you haven’t moved quickly enough when there is a bike riding on the sidewalk as you walked to the Musee du Louvre or you you’re taking your sweet time trying to get a glimpse of Hope Solo while someone waits patiently to get their new profile picture during half-time, or the numerous other fish out of water experiences that I have encountered in France. Thankfully, I’ve stopped being embarrassed in these situations and tried to do better for the future by sticking my faithful ally in people watching.
Because we have various brain networks like the PPN with brain structures like the pSTS present to determine most beneficial actions to blend in any situation or find most entertaining of scenarios, it’s not hard see why we continue to people watching at the most inopportune times. We have the wiring to help us bounce back from the mistakes we make.
Without the spatial and social awareness that comes from people watching, I would not have the same peculiar but truly fascinating experiences I’ve had throughout Paris. So, I’m keeping my eyes peeled for the next exciting exploration or the next cue that comes my way.
Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. (n.d.). fMRI. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3fNf8KX1AlQ
Quadflieg, S., & Koldewyn, K. (2017). The neuroscience of people watching: how the human brain makes sense of other people’s encounters. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences,1396(1), 166–182. https://doi.org/10.1111/nyas.13331
Walbrin, J., Downing, P., & Koldewyn, K. (2018). Neural responses to visually observed social interactions. Neuropsychologia,112, 31–39. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2018.02.023
Image #1: [Screenshot of the Musee du Louvre]. Retrieved from https://www.google.com/maps/place/Louvre+Museumfirstname.lastname@example.org,2.3354607,17z/data=!3m1!4b1!4m5!3m4!1s0x47e671d877937b0f:0xb975fcfa192f84d4!8m2!3d48.8606111!4d2.337644
Image #3: [Screenshot of the Figure 2]. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5899757/
Image #2 and #4 were taken by me