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What is Social Neuroscience?

The human species is by far the most social species on the planet. Our daily lives our filled with interactions with friends and family, with social norms and rules we have to remember and follow, and with collective tasks that we have to accomplish and coordinate with others. Throughout our evolution, our brains have had to develop strategies and processes for keeping track of and implementing all of this social behavior. It wasn’t until very recently though, that we were finally able to start uncovering how the brain was able to accomplish these incredibly complex social tasks. Blog post inspired by video from The Cellular Republic.

Can you define Social Neuroscience?

Broadly speaking, social neuroscience is the study of how brains (all of them--humans, rats, birds, etc.) analyze and execute social behavior. The field officially kicked off in the early 1990s with animal work that showed how important socialization was to various animals (especially mammals). This work uncovered the profound havoc that isolation can have on our biological systems. Cognitive decline, increased stress responses and decreased immunity, higher blood pressure, depression and fatigue were some of the highlights in a long laundry list of symptoms that they witnessed in animals that were kept alone and deprived of social interaction. It highlighted that we all have a need to belong that influences our behavior almost as intensely as our needs for hunger or for thirst.

With the advent and implementation of new advanced brain imaging technologies like magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) researchers began taking the science in a new direction and peering into the brains of humans to see how these social processes may be unfolding in each and every one of us. They wanted to uncover the social brain, the regions or networks that set us apart in the animal kingdom and have allowed us to accomplish incredibly complex cooperative social advancements. They wanted to see how these networks and processes may go awry when our need to belong is not met and how it is that we can correct these patterns and mechanisms to help these people to achieve a healthy social life.

What do Social Neuroscientists Study?

Our social world is an extremely complex arrangement of rules and norms, of interactions and emotions and of perceptions and interpretations. A social neuroscientist’s goal is to isolate these various components of our social world in order to see how our brain interprets and engages in each of these different behaviors and perceptions. One of the trickiest problems that a social neuroscientist faces however, is that they are often putting someone alone into a giant magnet and trying to then get that person’s brain to activate in some socially specific way. Despite this limitation, very clever experiments have been created that invoke brain activity that is related to all of these different aspects of social behavior.

These experiments usually revolve around how the self and how the other is represented in the brain--

The Self. It may seem counter intuitive for a social neuroscientist to be studying the self, but many of these scientists believe that an understanding of how the self is created and managed in the brain can reveal so much about how we engage in the social world. They investigate how the brain is different when we’re thinking about who we are in comparison to who other people are. They ask how we may be using our sense of self to try to understand others that are similar or close to us and how we may veer away from that and resort to stereotypes when others are not like us.

The Other. Social neuroscientists want to know how our brain creates and tracks representations of the people we meet and how it knows who is important to us. They want to know how we achieve theory of mind (knowing that others have a perspective of their own) and how the brain achieves things like empathy and compassion. Or, how we use subtle emotional and physical cues from these others to direct our own behavior.

Where is Social Neuroscience heading?

Social neuroscience is still in its infancy but it is already starting to unravel so many of these mysteries in amazing ways. It’s starting to show how language and communication work in the brain and how we come to understand those around us. Advanced experiments are starting to show how our brains sync up with and get on the same wavelength as the people that we are close to in our lives. This is just the tip of the ice berg however and in the years to come, social neuroscience has the potential to uncover how our brains evolved to set us apart as the most cooperative and organized social species on the planet.

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