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Mechanisms of social attention

Final Report Summary - MESA (Mechanisms of social attention)

Humans as social beings are permanently surrounded by other humans and thus face diverse forms of social interactions throughout their whole life. 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 were 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 involving behavioural psychophysics, eye-tracking approaches, recordings of autonomic nervous system activity, novel neuroimaging techniques and pharmacological challenges, the current project aimed 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 characterized what social attention is and how it could be differentiated from other forms of attentional regulation. Specifically, we demonstrated that other human beings are attended quickly and extensively irrespective of whether they are particularly salient in terms of low-level physical features. 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 might rely on subcortical circuits that ‘tag’ social features in the visual periphery and thus support triggering shifts of spatial attention towards these locations. Moving experiments from the traditional laboratory setting to less constrained simulated conditions in virtual reality or real social situations ‘in the wild’, revealed interesting similarities but also crucial differences that call into question whether laboratory findings can be directly generalized to field conditions. This discrepancy is especially relevant concerning findings of aberrant social attention in clinical conditions such as social anxiety or autism spectrum disorders.
Collectively, the current research project comprehensively characterized social attention on the behavioural level, it provided insights on the neural implementation of these processes and identified problems concerning the external validity of laboratory findings in this domain. Finally, it was shown that social attention varies substantially between individuals and might – when falling onto extreme ends of the continuum – constitute a risk factor for the aetiology and maintenance of clinical conditions that are characterized by severe problems in social functioning.
Until now, the current project resulted in 13 publications that appeared in well recognized peer-reviewed journals with 4 additional publications that are currently under review. A few additional papers are in preparation at the moment and will be submitted for publication soon. Key results were presented at numerous national and international conferences throughout the whole project duration. Furthermore, team members significantly contributed to a summerschool on “Social Cognition and Neuroscience” (2017 in Würzburg, Germany) and a Gentner Symposium on “Understanding others: From Psychological Concepts to Neural Mechanisms” (2018 in Jerusalem, Israel).