Friday, December 23, 2005

Social cognitive neuroscience

I didn’t mention it in my post below on Fiddick, but his is only one out of eleven papers composing a theme on social cognitive neuroscience in the recent issue of NeuroImage. This exiting new field has only been around for 5-10 years, but it will surely be one of the major research areas to watch in the coming years. More and more evidence have amassed suggesting that homo sapiens is an extraordinary social species. Yet, not much is known about how our brains give rise to this unique cognitive competence. A better understanding of the human social brain may also have practical consequences. For instance, perhaps one day we will come to understand why some people strap on explosives and blow up themselves and others for the sake of some political cause.

I highly recommend a visit to the Emotion and Social Behavior Lab at Caltech, led by Ralph Adolphs. Adolphs is a world leader in social cognitive neuroscience, and has written several fine reviews on its state of the art. These two are especially good:

Adolphs, R (2003). Cognitive Neuroscience of Human Social Behaviour. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 4 (3), 165-178. (pdf)

Heberlein, AS, Adolphs, R. Functional anatomy of human social cognition. Book chapter, In press. (pdf)

The fact that we are highly social animals has often been used as an argument for cultural relativism. The argument, prototypically, runs like this. The social context (our “culture”) determines how we think. Therefore, the nature of the brain’s neurocognitive mechanisms is irrelevant to an understanding of our “thinking”. Instead, we should analyse the social “facts” of the culture we are immersed in. As Emile Durkheim famously stated in The Rules of Sociological Method: Social fact

"consist of manners of acting, thinking and feeling external to the individual, which are invested with a coercive power by virtue of which they exercise control over him.
Consequently, since they consist of representations and actions, they cannot be confused with organic phenomena, nor with psychical phenomena, which have no existence save in and through the individual consciousness. Thus they constitute a new species and to them must be exclusively assigned the term social. It is appropriate, since it is clear that, not having the individual as their substratum, they can have none other than society, either political society in its entirety or one of the partial groups that it includes - religious denominations, political and literary schools, occupational corporations, etc. Moreover, it is for such as these alone that the term is fitting, for the word 'social' has the sole meaning of designating those phenomena which fall into none of the categories of facts already constituted and labelled. They are consequently the proper field of sociology." (Bold added.)

I cannot begin to count the number of times I have encountered this argument. Yet, how could social “facts” possibly inform, or even determine, how we think (“exercise control over us” in Durkheim's words), if they didn’t “interact” in some way with the brain’s neuronal processes? If my thinking, for instance, about gender roles has been influenced by my looking at scantily clothed women in advertising and music videos (a very popular sentiment among some feminists), my act of looking must somehow be able to form concepts of gender roles in my brain. So, clearly some brain mechanisms are involved in this external, social “exercise of control”. (Also, remember that some types of brain diseases, such as autism, radically impair the patient's ability to absorb social "facts".)

Many of the papers in the NeuroImage special issue address this problem of why the human brain is so susceptible to social influence. Social psychology refers to this question as the “power of situation over behaviour”. UCLA psychologist Matthew Lieberman, the editor of the special issue, go through a lot of what is known about how situations influence brain activity, including the peculiar phenomenon of priming. In the conclusion to his introductory remarks he writes:

Much of social psychology is fundamentally paradoxical, at least to the western mind. We tend to believe that we are the captains of our destiny, and yet, time and time again, social psychology has shown that situational factors exert strong pressures on our behavior and often does so without our knowledge. The implications of these and other findings for social cognitive neuroscience are twofold. First, although social psychologists have established these various principles, nderstanding why humans are guided by these principles and when these principles apply remain largely unknown. If social cognitive neuroscience can help to answer these questions it would be a major contribution to our understanding of social cognition. Second, the principles of social psychology apply not only to the subjects in our investigations, but to us, the researchers as well. In the absence of understanding these principles, we are likely to generate social cognitive hypotheses that are unnecessarily naıve. If we are as blind to the power of situational forces and our own ability to construct social perceptions that do not feel constructed, we will be unable to generate experimental paradigms that take these factors into account. Ultimately, a successful social cognitive neuroscience should thoroughly integrate the methods of social cognition and cognitive neuroscience, and also rely in equal parts on the conceptual lexica of these two parent disciplines as well.

After having read Adolphs two papers, you should go peruse the NeuroImage papers as well.


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