The Society for Social Neuroscience has posted eight video lectures online from leading figures in the field. They gave overview talks at the Society for Social Neuroscience’s first ever conference, held last November in San Diego.
So, what’s social neuroscience?
As neuroscience matures, it has become increasingly apparent that the nervous system cannot be considered as an isolated entity, without consideration of the social environments in which humans and many animal species live. We now increasingly recognize the considerable impact on brain and body function of social structures that range from dyads, families, neighborhoods and groups to cities, civilizations, and international alliances. These factors operate on the individual through a continuous interplay of neural, neuroendocrine, metabolic and immune factors on brain and body, in which the brain is the central regulatory organ and also a malleable target of these factors.
The first video I want to highlight is Bruce McEwen’s lecture on stress. Entitled Neuroscience Perspectives of Stress and Brain and Body Health: Importance of the Social Environment, this talk is a great complement to last Friday’s post on poverty poisoning the brain. McEwen takes us through how stress contributes to that process, while also recognizing that stress can be a positive factor and that we have interventions to help deal with stress in a variety of manners.
The brain is the central organ of stress because it interprets what is stressful and also determines health behaviors and physiological responses to stressors. Besides major life events, the aggravations of daily life, created in large part by our social environment, elevate activities of physiological systems so as to cause wear and tear on the brain and body.
The second lecture is by Mario Mendez, a leading researcher on frontotemporal dementia. I’m really intrigued by this disorder, with its similarities to certain aspects of addiction and the peculiar social deficits that can result from brain deficits. To take a quote from last year’s post, Frontotemporal Dementia, Neuroanthropology, and Reverse Engineering the Mind, behavioral variant frontotemporal dementia patients often go through dramatic behavioral changes:
‘teetotalers’ beginning to abuse alcohol, some patients becoming verbally abusive in public, others losing social propriety and urinating in public or getting into traffic accidents without concern, shoplifting, giving away large amounts of money to strangers, and other odd or aberrant behaviors (11).
Mario Mendez, Frontotemporal Dementia as a Window to the Social Brain
Frontotemporal dementia (FTD) is a devastating neurodegenerative disorder characterized by early and relatively select disturbances in social and moral behavior. FTD results in an impairment in the essential emotions that drive these behaviors and, as such, constitutes a unique window to the neuroscience of the social brain.
Martha Farah is a leading research in the impacts of inequality of the brain, as well as on ethics and neuroscience, including cognitive enhancers. Her Social Neuroscience talk focused on ethics, where she gives us the overview from the social neuroscience perspective. And that’s the last talk I’ll highlight myself.
In its short history, social neuroscience has advanced our understanding of human behavior and hence our ability to predict and control it. How might current and near-term progress in social neuroscience be used, outside of the basic science laboratory? What might the societal impact of these uses be?
Social Cognition and Reasoning
David Amodio, What’s Being Controlled? Clues from the Frontal Cortex
Theories of control are used to explain how people regulate a variety of responses, such as unintended thoughts, emotions, behaviors, and perceptions. But do the neurocognitive mechanisms of control operate on each type of response in the same way? I will present research that integrates models of frontal cortical anatomy and function to shed light on the targets of controlled processes, particularly as they operate social contexts.
Games are mathematical snapshots of social life. A recent approach to the study of how people and other entities choose strategies in games is a “cognitive hierarchy” (CH) theory. In CH, players do 0, 1, 2 or more steps of reasoning, anticipating the likely behavior of lower-level players. This model explains many empirical studies in field and lab data, and has support from eyetracking and fMRI studies.
Alarm pheromone is known to provoke immediate aggression in honey bees. We find that alarm pheromone also causes longer-lasting changes in arousal and extensive changes in brain gene expression. Some of the same genes responsive to alarm pheromone also show stable differential regulation in strains of bees that differ in aggressiveness, supporting the idea that there are “pacemaker” genes for social responsiveness active over dramatically different timescales.
Robert Blanchard, Modeling Social Behavior in the Rat and Mouse
Ethological analyses of social behaviors in rats and mice focus on systematic variation of core features such as habitat size and spacing possibilities, along with microanalyses of interactive behaviors. BTBR T+tf/J mice, show different, but complementary, autism-like social behaviors in both large Visible Burrow Systems, and under close social proximity.
Oxytocin modulates complex social behaviors, including group size preference, parental behaviors and social bonding. These effects on complex behaviors may be mediated, in part, by increasing the saliency of social stimuli. Early social experience can shape the oxytocin system, impacting later life social behavior. Intranasal oxytocin studies demonstrate that oxytocin influences human social cognition, which has important implications for psychiatric disorders.