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ERC

MESA Report Summary

Project ID: 336305
Funded under: FP7-IDEAS-ERC
Country: Germany

Mid-Term Report Summary - MESA (Mechanisms of social attention)

Humans as social beings permanently face diverse forms of social interactions, which in turn require possessing a broad set of social functions. Whereas previous research on social capabilities largely focussed on higher order functions (e.g., theory of mind or empathy), the basic processes underlying these functions are explored less extensively. This is especially true for social attention which is at the heart of every complex social capability because without first allocating attention to other human beings or to aspects in the environment which they attend to, it is essentially impossible to infer their intentions or to feel empathy with them. Using a multimodal approach, the current project aims at 1) characterizing social attention on the behavioural level, 2) revealing the underlying neural circuitry using electroencephalography and neuroimaging techniques, 3) examining the degree of generalizability from laboratory to field situations by emphasizing on ecological validity and 4) clarifying the contribution of dysfunctions in social attention for psychiatric conditions such as social anxiety disorders, autism, psychopathy and related disorders.
In a set of eye-tracking studies using a broad range of static and dynamic complex scenes, we could show that physical saliency better predicts fixations for non-social as compared to social stimuli because other human beings are attended quickly and extensively irrespective of their physical saliency. This form of social attention occurs covertly as well as overtly and although it can be modulated by specific task demands (i.e., it is under top-down control) it cannot be abolished and is quickly reinstated when the task demands are eliminated. Regarding the neural underpinnings, we could show that the spatial location of social elements in the visual field is encoded in early visual cortex and we have preliminary data indicating that the amygdala might also represent this information and is involved in triggering shifts of spatial attention towards social stimuli in the visual periphery. First studies using eye-tracking outside the laboratory or immersive virtual reality to simulate social interactions are under way or will be conducted in the near future to examine whether other human beings also receive excessive attention when they are able to respond to the observer’s behaviour. Finally, we could show that individuals with social anxiety disorders are hypersensitive to human faces and show enhanced reflexive as well as sustained attentional orienting towards the eye region of conspecifics. Comparable deficits in attentional regulation were revealed for patients with borderline personality disorders. We are currently analysing whether an inverse pattern can be obtained for prison inmates with antisocial and psychopathy traits.
Collectively, the current research project has largely succeeded in characterizing social attention on the behavioural level and it provided first ideas on the neural implementation of these processes. Upcoming studies will elucidate the external validity of these findings as well as their relevance for clinical conditions that are characterized by severe problems in social functioning.

Contact

Christian Gloggengiesser, (Administrative Officer)
Tel.: +49 931 31 82294
Fax: +49 931 31 87180
E-mail
Record Number: 193278 / Last updated on: 2017-01-17
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