Nordic Neuropsychology – The Social Brain: Development and Dysfunction

The 10th Nordic Meeting of Neuropsychology took place back in 2010, with the special theme of “The Social Brain: Development and Dysfunction.” I recently came across their hefty conference report on The Social Brain, which was published back in April 2011.

The report features summaries and reviews of the great talks given by the likes of Uta Firth, Shihui Han, Sarah-Jayne Blackmore, and other great researchers. Furthermore, the conference website also provides access to some of the powerpoints of presenters. For example, you can get Chris Firth’s ending powerpoint lecture “The Social Brain: Summing Up and Looking Ahead”. That’s just great.

Here are a couple examples of summaries from the conference.

Simone Shamay-Tsoory gave a talk “The Neural Basis of Competitive Emotions,” which I thought was a great departure from most research on emotions I have seen.

Exploring the neurochemical bases of competitive emotions, Shamay-Tsoory proposed a role for the oxytocinergic system in mediating these emotions. Contrary to the prevailing belief that the oxytocinergic system is involved solely in positive cooperative behaviors, Shamay-Tsoory presented findings from a recent study showing that oxytocin plays a key role in a wider range of social emotion-related behaviors (Shamay-Tsoory et al., 2009).

In this study subjects played the game of chance described earlier (Dvash et al., 2010), following the administration of oxytocin or a placebo. While the oxytocin had no effect on feelings toward colors or on general mood, increased ratings of envy and Schadenfreude were reported. These results suggest that the oxytocinergic system is involved in modulating envy and Schadenfreude.

Thus, it is proposed that the oxytocinergic system is responsible for modulating the salience of social agents in social contexts. As such, the administration of oxytocin may evoke a wide range of emotions and behaviors related to social behavior and parenting, such as trusting collaborators, attacking potential intruders, and competing with rivals.

In summarizing these results, Shamay-Tsoory proposed that the mentalizing network (through the mPFC and TP) and reward system (through the ventral striatum) process competitive emotions, and that the oxytocinergic system
is involved in mediating these emotions.

Andreas Roepstorff, a European neuroanthropologist, reviewed Shihui Han’s talk on “Cultural Selves, Encultured Brains.” Roepstorff provides an excellent overview of Han’s research, and situates that work within the broader framing of cultural neuroscience work on “the self” cross-culturally. Really just an excellent and succinct read (it starts on page 24 of the 72 page document). Here’s part of it:

In the critical comparison between relating to the mother and relating to the self, the authors could not find significant differences in MPFC activity in the Chinese students, whereas the Western students showed significantly more MPFC activity in the ‘mother’ condition.

This was interpreted in accordance with the Markus and Western and Chinese concepts of Self. Kitayama distinction, that Western students, with an independent view of self, would neurally differentiate self from mother, whereas to the Chinese students the pattern of activity to self and close others in medial prefrontal cortex appeared comparable, perhaps reflecting a more interdependent self-construal.

This finding could be interpreted as an instance of cultural determinism, where the surroundings ‘create’ the persons. However, in an important follow up study, Han and colleagues examined whether cultural priming could shift the MPFC activity to close others between a “self ”-related and a “distant other”-related pattern.

For this study, they went to Hong Kong to study students who had been exposed to both “English” and “Chinese” impressions during their upbringing. Indeed, they found that exposing the participants to simple icons of ‘western’ culture would increase self-mother differences in MPFC, while priming with icons of Chinese culture decreased neural differentiation of mother and self in MPFC.

This finding, supported also by ‘bi-cultural’ work in the US (Chiao et al., 2010), suggests that also at a neural level, cultural self construals are context dependent and may be flexibly adapted to particular settings.

I applaud the Nordic Meeting in Neuropsychology organizers for making available this rich document that serves testament to a wonderful meeting, and lets others get a great sense of what was presented and why the research matters.

Link to the conference schedule, with accompanying powerpoints where available

Link to “The social brain: development and dysfunction”

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Nordic Neuropsychology – The Social Brain: Development and Dysfunction by Neuroanthropology, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.

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