Dunbar and the Anti-Social Author

Several years ago, my girlfriend related to me a social theory known as Dunbar’s Number, or the Monkey’s Sphere. It is, in simplest terms, a theory which says that humans have a cognitive limit on how many people they can maintain relationships with. The number is roughly 150, taken from a range of about 100-200. It has to do a lot with the neocortical size of our brains. Ever since that time, the theory has interested me, and especially recently, I have been wondering about Dunbar’s Number and the anti-social stereotype of the author.

It occurred to me, a few days ago, that there might be a very simple explanation regarding the awkward, anti-social tendencies of authors. I know that I have a very hard time keeping up lasting relationships. At most, I have an upward limit of about twenty people I can say I know intimately, and with confidence. A majority of that number is taken up by family and co-workers, leaving precious few slots for friends. And so, whether I will it or not, friends go in and out of favor through the years. Of course, I know part of it is that I am an introvert.

….until I really think about it. I do like seeing people, and doing things in small to medium groups. I’ve come to realize this about myself even more, being in such a close relationship with someone who really, really does not enjoy any of that. In any case, I find that I do want to know people, and when I extend the effort, I do make friends easily. So why am I not able to bring myself to being one of those people with 436 friends on Facebook, or even, more reasonably, a person who contacts her close friends on a regular basis?

Because my head is already full of inter-personal relationships. With my characters.

Anyone who knows an author, or is an author themselves, knows the saying “My characters talk to me!” Sometimes they do less talking and it’s more mocking, yelling, complaining, moaning, crying, slighting, murdering, and so on, but you get the point. Every day I have conversations with these characters. Some that do eventually fade out, or die (and how I cry when they do!), but even when that happens, another is there to take their place.

It was an interesting thing to think about, though I am not a psychologist or a scientist by any measure. But it made sense, at least to me. Authors aren’t really anti-social. They’ve just made their relational commitments already- to their work. To their muses, and their devils, and all of those other little voices between that speak to them. We have to get attached to them. We have to know their every detail to portray them on the page. That sort of inter-personal work leaves very little room for those ‘real-life’ relationships that are, of course, equally important (though maybe less entertaining- after all, when was the last time one of your friends told you all about his trek through the desert as a slave, or his thoughts as a demon on modern society, or of all of the wonderful dreams they wove that night?)

I guess what I’m trying to say is, I’m not anti-social. And maybe other authors aren’t either. Maybe their whole social universe is just inside their head.

For the record, that is a picture of MY brain. Neat, huh?


6 thoughts on “Dunbar and the Anti-Social Author

    1. True enough. That is what my brain looked like three years ago, during a study on concentration and exhaustion. 🙂


  1. Great post. I really liked it. I have to admit, I find it hard to keep up with all the blogs I already follow (at least, I do if I want to find time for writing!), but this has convinced me to add you to my blogroll. 🙂


    1. Thank you so much! That is very kind of you. I’ll do my best to earn that slot, but it’s absolutely not a problem if you don’t have time to read/comment. I know the game! Cheers. -A


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