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How does our brain learn to be social?

Final Report Summary - SOCIAL BRAIN (How does our brain learn to be social?)

How and why do people learn to be social and what is the role of interaction therein? The burgeoning field of social neuroscience has begun to illuminate the complex biological bases of human social cognitive abilities. Many investigations have focused, in particular, on the neural correlates of our capacity to grasp the mental states of others. Two neuroanatomically distinct large-scale networks have gained center stage as the neural substrates of social cognition: the so-called “mirror neuron system” (MNS) and the “mentalising network” (MENT). The former has been taken as evidence for a simulationist account of social cognition and is believed to give us a “first-person grasp” of the motor goals and intentions of other individuals. The latter has been seen as providing evidence for a “Theory Theory” account of social cognition believe to give us an inferential, reflective (and what might be called a ‘third-person’) grasp of others’ mental states. The apparent disparity between these sets of results may, however, arise from differences in the experimental paradigms used, which run the danger of presupposing the very theoretical frameworks they claim to test. Consequently, both of these paradigms are investigating actual, but limited domains of social cognition. Both are, in effect, committed to spectator theories of knowledge. They have focused on the use of “isolation paradigms”, in which participants are required to merely observe others or think about their mental states rather than participate in social interaction with them. Consequently, it has remained unclear whether and how activity in the large-scale neural networks described above is modulated by the degree to which a person does or does not feel actively involved in an ongoing interaction and whether the networks might subserve complementary or mutually exclusive roles in this case. In a recent paper that outlines the core theoretical assumptions of the project (Schilbach & Timmermans et al. 2012 Behav Brain Sci), we propose an approach to the investigation of social cognition focused on ‘second-person’ engagements and interaction. This approach, we argue, will help social neuroscience to really go social. The figure below lists crucial dimensions along which a “second-person” approach could develop. In this project, we focused primarily on 2 aspects: in paradigms of type [5], participants are engaged in dynamic interaction with one another, and behaviour of both participants is analysed, which we did for people with High Functioning Autism partnered with healthy control participants. Paradigms of type [2] do not allow for dynamics to develop, but allow a participant to see the effect of their behaviour on others, which makes for a more controllable experimental environment.