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Tracking the cognitive basis of social communication across the life-span

Periodic Reporting for period 4 - CogSoCoAGE (Tracking the cognitive basis of social communication across the life-span)

Reporting period: 2020-03-01 to 2021-02-28

A vital part of successful everyday social interaction is the ability to update our current knowledge using information about others (e.g. their emotions, visual perspective, and language). Indeed, the need to infer meaning during interaction with others arises not just everyday, but every time we encounter another person. It is something that as healthy adults, we perform frequently and seemingly without a great deal of difficulty. However, previous research has highlighted that even healthy adults experience difficulties considering another person’s point of view when that view conflicts with their own. Further, research on healthy aging reports specific impairments in these abilities with increasing age, which raises three important questions: what is the cognitive basis of social interaction, how does this change across the life-span, and can training these underlying cognitive skills enhance impaired social skills?

Typically, children develop the necessary skills for social communication between the ages of 2 and 7 years old. A key component of this developmental trajectory is the ability to understand and predict events in terms of other peoples’ mental states, such as their intentions, beliefs and desires (termed Theory of Mind, ToM). Interestingly, this marked improvement in ToM coincides with children’s development of more general cognitive skills, called Executive Functions (EF). EF is a commonly used ‘umbrella term’ to describe the processes that are responsible for higher-level action control (e.g. planning, inhibition, coordination and control of behaviours), and are necessary to maintain specific goals and resist distraction from alternatives. Linking ToM and EF makes sense given that successful social cognition requires one to hold in mind multiple perspectives (i.e. working memory), suppress irrelevant perspectives (i.e. inhibitory control), and switch between these two perspectives depending on context (i.e. cognitive flexibility). The key aim of the CogSoCoAGE project was to systematically explore the cognitive basis of social communication and how this changes across the life-span.

The project is organised into three complementary objectives. Objective 1 explored the degree to which variations in ToM ability across the life-span (10-90 years old) can be accounted for by changes in EF skills. Objective 2 used a longitudinal approach (i.e. test-retest of the same participants) to track the changes in ToM ability and EF skill over time in different age groups in order to establish when key developmental changes occur, while limiting the effects of individual differences between participants. Objective 3 tested whether ToM ability, and hence social interaction, can be enhanced by training specific EF skills, and how these training effects might differ across the life-span. The research within each of these objectives employed cutting-edge combinations of techniques (e.g. eye-tracking and EEG) and paradigms to assess several key components of social interaction, including emotional states, visual perspective-taking, and high-level inferences about others’ minds. We also gained a unique and significantly richer understanding of these processes by examining emerging findings alongside a battery of measures that test general social and cognitive skills (eg. IQ, language), which have enabled fine-grained analyses within and between individuals.
Different sub-components of social cognition show distinct patterns of age-related change; those that are cognitively effortful are subject to developmental changes from adolescence to older age, and those that are activated relatively rapidly, effortlessly and spontaneously are not. Some declines in social cognition emerge long before traditional ‘old age’, from ~35 years old, in line with age-related declines in working memory and inhibitory control. Despite this evidence for a mechanistic link between social and cognitive skills, training cognitive capacities has limited benefits to social skills, since training effects are specific to the trained task routine. The results of the CogSoCoAGE project have been published in 11 published/in press peer-reviewed publications, one edited book (including three chapters authored by the team), one in press book chapter, one in press journal special issue, more than 10 papers currently under review, and more than 50 national and international conference presentations. In addition to knowledge transfer to primarily academic audiences, the CogSoCoAGE project results have been highlighted in the media, have been presented at multiple invited talks and keynotes, and has been at the heart of several public engagement activities.
The CogSoCoAGE project was founded on the use of a range of cutting-edge methods from Cognitive Psychology, Linguistics and Neuroscience, applying these in novel combinations to investigate the relationship between cognitive skills and social interaction across the age-span. All objectives employed unique and comprehensive batteries of assessments to test a broader range of social and cognitive skills than ever before, including multiple domains of ToM use (e.g. emotional states, imitation, empathy, visual perspective-taking, social attention, and high-level mental reasoning). Most existing research is limited to examining a single domain, in a narrow age band. These paradigms have been used alongside state-of-the-art techniques (including behavioural responses, and highly-sensitive eye-tracking and electroencephalography (EEG/ERP)), which enables a multi-modal exploration of social understanding and inferences.

The choice to recruit large samples of healthy individuals across a very broad age-range, from children to older adults (10 to 80+ years old), is also unusual. Most previous research on social interaction and EF has focused on a very narrow age-range of 2-7 years old, when these skills are known to develop in typically developing children, or on clinical disorders that affect these skills (e.g. autism, schizophrenia). However, a growing body of research has emerged over the last few years, demonstrating that in fact social development continues through adolescence and well into our 20s, thus it is likely that key stages of ToM/EF development have been overlooked. Moreover, it remains undefined when cognitive/social decline begins within the life-span. The broad incremental age groups and longitudinal methods being used in the CogSoCoAGE project have enabled a valid, novel and dynamic exploration of these effects over age and time. In addition, research in Objective 3 is the first to test social-cognitive training effects across a wide age range from childhood to older age (10-80 years old), thus providing novel insights about whether training programmes might be more effective in a specific age range (e.g. among adolescents whose social skills are still developing, or older adults who are susceptible to age-related impairments).

Finally, we complement the tightly controlled, lab-based experimental paradigms with more ecologically valid methods, to enable a rare exploration of real-life social interactions (e.g. a face to face conversation, in crowded spaces). Moreover, for the first time we combined these real-world situations with sophisticated eye-tracking technology (SMI eye-tracking glasses) to observe social engagement and attention in real-time while participants were actively immersed in the tasks.
Mobile research laboratory
Real-world eye-tracking glasses
CogSoCoAGE logo
EEG setup
Participants- all given consent