The “dark matter of social neuroscience”?—real social interactions

May 28, 2013

Summary

Przyrembel et al (2012) argue that the field of social neuroscience has not adequately studied, or even acknowledged the need to study, its “dark matter”—real social interaction, which is reciprocal, iterative, and unpredictable.

More Details

In an earlier post entitled “Playing music together:  coordinated action, attuned brains,” I discussed a study by Sänger et al (2012) that measured brain activity coordination in pairs of guitarists playing a duet.  Sänger et al call these guitarists duet playing an example of “interpersonal action coordination.”  A paper by Przyrembel et al (2012) questions whether this type of activity is an example of true social interaction, and to what extent measurements of brain activity in this type of study give us insight into brain mechanisms of real social interaction.   Przyrembel et al define real social interaction as a situation in which the action of one person (subject A) triggers a reaction from her partner (subject B), which in turn triggers a reaction from subject A, which in turn triggers a reaction from subject B, and so on, in a continuous, reciprocal interaction loop.  Przyrembel et al further state that the reaction of each partner should be largely spontaneous and unpredictable, i.e. the actions of both partners cannot be experimentally controlled if one wants to study real social interaction.   So, Przyrembel et al argue that studies such as that of Sänger et al (2012)  may be addressing coordinated action, but not true social interaction, because the guitar players are playing a written piece of music together, and so their actions are largely predictable and constrained.  Przyrembel et al propose that recording the activities of two jazz musicians improvising as a better model of real, spontaneous interaction.  Przyrembel et al goes on to question whether social neuroscience  as a field has succeeded yet in studying real social interaction, and state that such real social interaction “remains the ‘dark matter’ of social neuroscience” (Przyrembel et al 2012).  Although Przyrembel et al seems to concede that more controlled studies may have identified many of the neural circuits involved in true social interaction, they argue that more can been learned by studying the neurobiology real interactions more directly.  This article raises some important issues, including the tension between a need for experimental control to disentangle the many biological factors involved in social behaviors, on the one hand, vs. the need to directly study real social interaction, to ensure that what we discover is “ecologically valid,” i.e. relevant to real world social interactions.  I think that there is not an easy answer to this dilemma, and both types of studies will be necessary, i.e. some more experimentally controlled, and some more naturalistic and real-world, in order to get a fuller understanding of the social brain.

References

Przyrembel M, Smallwood J, Pauen M, Singer T (2012) Illuminating the dark matter of social neuroscience:  considering the problem of social neuroscience from philosophical, psychological, and neuroscientific perspectives.  Frontiers in Human Neuroscience 6:190.

Sänger J, Müller V, Lindenberger U (2012) Intra- and interbrain synchronization and network properties when playing guitar in duets.  Frontiers in Human Neuroscience 6:312.

©2011-2013 Edward S. Brodkin.  All Rights Reserved

The amygdala in social behaviors: not just about fear

February 11, 2013

Summary

The amygdala is classically thought of as mediating fear and fear learning, specifically. But is the role of the amygdala in social information processing and social behaviors limited to fear and fear learning?  A new study by Vrticka (2013) indicates that the amygdala is activated robustly and to an equal extent when subjects viewed either positively-valenced (pleasurable, desirable) or negatively-valenced (threatening, fear-inducing) social pictures. This study suggests that the amygdala is very sensitive to social stimuli, regardless of whether the emotional valence of the stimuli is positive or negative.

More details

The classical view of amygdala function is that the brain region primarily mediates fear and fear learning, including fear in a social context (e.g. amygdala activation while viewing threatening or fearful faces).    In my last post about desire for interpersonal closeness, I mentioned the hypothesis the human brain has “opposing emotional neural circuits” (Vrticka 2012)—one of which mediates social approach/reward, and the other which mediates social avoidance/aversion, with the latter circuit including the amygdala (Vrticka 2012).  But is mediating fear / aversion really the main role of the amygdala in social information processing and social behaviors?  Recent studies indicate that the amygdala, composed of a heterogeneous set of nuclei (Swanson 2003), plays a broader role in processing emotional and motivational salience of environmental stimuli (including social stimuli), including not only negatively valenced (aversive, fear-inducing) stimuli, but also very positively valenced (rewarding, pleasurable, desired) stimuli (Cunningham and Brosch 2012; Adophs 2010).  Consistent with this emerging perspective, a new study by Vrticka (2013) demonstrates similar levels of activation of the human amygdala in response to either negatively- or positively-valenced social stimuli.  In this study, 19 female participants (mean age ~25 years) underwent brain functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) while viewing positively-valenced social pictures, negatively-valenced social pictures, positively-valenced non-social pictures, negatively-valenced non-social pictures, neutral social pictures, and neutral non-social pictures.  The data indicate that, overall, the amygdala is more strongly activated for social vs. non-social stimuli (significant main effect of social content), and this effect occurred with stimuli of all valences (positive, negative, and neutral).  These data support the notion that the amygdala is particularly responsive to social information, regardless of the type of emotional valence of the information.  The amygdala was activated at a similar level by negatively- and positively-valenced social stimuli, though was some indication of greater amygdala activation in response to negatively-valenced non-social stimuli vs. positively valenced non-social stimuli. Perhaps the classical view of the amygdala as mediating fear specifically may have more to do with amygdala responses to non-social stimuli than its responses to social stimuli, although additional studies would be needed to confirm this.  Other brain regions that showed a pattern of activation similar to that of the bilateral amygdala in this study included the right fusiform gyrus, right anterior superior temporal gyrus, and the medial orbitofrontal cortex, which, together with the amygdala, may form a brain network involved in social and emotional information processing (Vrticka, 2013).  One implication of this study, not directly tested here, may be that alterations in amygdala development or function may alter the salience of social stimuli in general, and not just fear or anxiety responses.

 References

Adolps R (2010) What does the amygdala contribute to social cognition?  Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 1191(Mar):42-61.

Cunningham WA and Brosch T (2012) Motivational salience:  amygdala tuning from trains, needs, values, and goals.  Current Directions in Psychological Science 21(1):54-59.

Swanson LW (2003) The amygdala and its place in the cerebral hemisphere.  Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 985(Apr):174-184.

Vrticka P (2012) Interpersonal closeness and social reward processing.  The Journal of Neuroscience 32(37):12649-12650.

Vrticka P, Sander D, Vuilleumier P (2013) Lateralized interactive social content and valence processing within the human amygdala. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience 6:358.

©2011-2013 Edward S. Brodkin.  All Rights Reserved

How desirable and pleasurable are social relationships? It depends on who you ask…

February 1, 2013

Summary

There are individual differences in how much people desire and seek out social interactions, and how comfortable people feel in getting emotionally close to others.  Are these individual differences in behavior related to differences in brain function?  Vrticka (2012) argues that reduced interest in social interaction and close relationships is associated with reduced activation of brain reward circuits in response to social stimuli.

More details

Most of us desire social interactions and take pleasure in close relationships with at least a small number of other people.  On the other hand, most of us also need some personal space and independence.  The preferred balance of interpersonal closeness vs. space varies from individual to individual.    A recent review by Vrticka (2012) addresses potential neural mechanisms underlying these individual differences.  Vrticka argues that, in each of us, there is a “‘push-pull’ mechanism between two opposing emotional neural circuits”(Vrticka (2012)—one of which mediates social approach/reward, and the other which mediates social avoidance/aversion (Porges et al 2003).  Vrticka writes that a likely candidate for the neural circuits that mediate social reward, e.g. the pleasures of positive interactions with a friend  or loved one, are the well-characterized brain reward circuits–including dopaminergic neurons that project from the ventral tegmental area (VTA) to the ventral striatum (VS, including the nucleus accumbens) and medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC), which mediate many different types of pleasurable and rewarding stimuli, including food and drugs of abuse.

To support the hypothesis that these neural circuits mediate social rewards, Vrticka cites an article by Fareri et al (2012) that finds greater activation of the VS and mPFC when money rewards were shared with a friend than when they were shared with an unfamiliar person.   In addition, Vrticka (2012) argues that individual differences in attachment style—a person’s relatively stable patterns of expectations, emotions, and behaviors in close relationships—maybe mediated by differences in the functioning of these brain reward circuits.  In a previous study, Vrticka and coworkers (2008) found that an “avoidant” attachment style—characterized by a preference for interpersonal distance and discomfort in getting too emotionally close to others—was associated with reduced activation of the VS in response to positive social feedback on performance in a game, but no alteration in VS responsiveness to nonsocial successes (winning the game).  As Vrticka (2012) points out, further studies of the functioning of these reward circuits seem warranted, not only for better understanding individuals differences in social reward, but also to better understand psychiatric and neurodevelopmental disorders characterized by reduced social interaction.  For example, there are recent reports of alterations in the function of brain reward circuitry in autism spectrum disorders (Kohls et al 2012a; Kohls 2012b).

References

Fareri DS, Niznikiewicz MA, Lee VK, Delgado MR (2012) Social network modulation of reward-related signals. The Journal of Neuroscience 32(26):9045-9052.

Kohls G, Chevallier C, Troiani V, Schultz RT (2012a) Social ‘wanting’ dysfunction in autism:  neurobiological underpinnings and treatment implications.  J Neurodev Disord 4(1):10.

Kohls G, Schulte-Rüther M, Nehrkorn B, Müller K, Fink GR, Kamp-Becker I, Herpertz-Dahlmann B, Schultz RT, Konrad K (2012b) Reward system dysfunction in autism spectrum disorders.  Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci, in press.

Porges SW (2003) Social engagement and attachment:  a phylogenetic perspective. Ann NY Acad Sci 1008(Dec):31-47.

Vrticka P (2012) Interpersonal closeness and social reward processing.  The Journal of Neuroscience 32(37):12649-12650.

Vrticka P, Andersson F, Grandjean D, Sander D, Vuilleumier P (2008) Individual attachment style modulates human amygdala and striatum activation during social appraisal.  PLoS One 3:e2868.

Vrticka P and Vuilleumier P (2012) Neuroscience of human social interactions and adult attachment style.  Front Hum Neurosci 6:212.

©2011-2013 Edward S. Brodkin.  All Rights Reserved

Playing music together: coordinated actions, attuned brains

January 21, 2013

Summary

The ability to coordinate our actions with someone else in real time is necessary for playing music together, dancing with others, playing sports, and a host of day-to-day social interactions.  But how do our brains mediate this social coordination?  Sänger et al (2012) begin to address this question by studying brain activity coordination in pairs of guitarists playing a duet.

More Details

Playing musical instruments together well requires an ongoing listening and awareness of ourselves and each other, a close attunement and flexible responsiveness to each other, and a coordination of actions between people, which has been termed “interpersonal action coordination” Sänger et al (2011).  This kind of attunement and coordination is also necessary when people dance or play certain types of sports together, or engage in many other types of less formalized social interactions that require coordinated action and are important in daily life, e.g. having a conversation or carrying out a task with someone (Sänger et al 2011; Sebanz et al 2006).  How is this mental and emotional attunement and motor coordination between two people mediated by the coordinated functioning of their brains?

A recent study by Sänger et al (2012) addressed this question by measuring electrical brain activity in pairs of people playing guitar duets, and by looking for similarities in electrical activity between the two brains during the playing.  The study included 12 sets of two skilled guitarists playing together a Rondo by Christian Gottlieb Scheidler, which involves changes in tempo.  The participants played the music from memory while facing each other.  They played the piece together 60 times on one test day, and another 60 times on a second test day.  The electrical activity of each player’s brain was recorded during the testing using electroencephalography (EEG).  To maximize the possibility that similarities in brain electrical activity of the two players would be related to interpersonal action coordination, and not just to identical perception (e.g. hearing) or identical movements (guitar playing movement), the study was designed so that the two players played somewhat different parts of the music, though the authors acknowledge that the perceptions and motions of the players were still quite similar.  The study found that coherence in activity between the two brains was most pronounced at the times that put a high demand on coordination of playing, e.g. at the time of tempo setting, and that this activity coherence was found especially at the front and center of the two brains. Between-brain coherence was seen especially in slow rhythm brain waves called theta waves.

The authors infer that frontal and central areas of the brain are particularly important for interpersonal action coordination.  They argue that these data support their model that this type of real-time coordination of action requires brain representation of one’s own actions and the actions of one’s partners and the effects of those actions (Sänger et al 2011).  They point out that brain research on interpersonal action coordination is only beginning, and much more research is needed to clarify the particular brain circuits involved, because the methods used in this study do not localize the source of the brain activity very precisely.  In addition, to studying how between-brain coherence works in those skilled it coordinating their actions, it will also be important and clinically relevant to study what is different about the brain functioning of individuals who have more difficulty with activities that demand coordination of action with another individual.

References

Sänger J, Lindenberger U, Müller V (2011) Interactive brains, social minds.  Communicative and Integrative Biology 4(6):655-663.

Sänger J, Müller V, Lindenberger U (2012) Intra- and interbrain synchronization and network properties when playing guitar in duets.  Frontiers in Human Neuroscience 6:312.

Sebanz N, Bekkering H, Knoblich G (2006) Joint action:  bodies and minds moving together.  Trends in Cognitive Sciences 10(2):70-76.

©2011-2013 Edward S. Brodkin.  All Rights Reserved

Face-to-Face communication: neurobiology of a vanishing art?

January 15, 2013

Summary

Emails, texts, social media—electronic communications are amazingly efficient, but what we gain in speed and efficiency seems to come at a cost.  What do we sacrifice by having more and more communication through our computers and smart phones, and less and less face-to-face communication? Is there something distinctive on a neurobiological level about face-to-face communication relative to other types of communication?  A recent article by Jiang et al (2012) suggests that there is.  The authors point out that face-to-face communication is the most “multi-modal,” i.e. involves integrating the most and richest types of social sensory information, allowing us to hear the tone of voice and see the facial expression and body language of the person we’re communicating with in real time.  Also, face-to-face communication involves a continuous pacing of turn taking in the conversation, which is often lost in electronic communications.  Jiang et al (2012) find that a specific area of the brain—the left inferior frontal cortex, which is an important location of mirror neurons—undergoes synchronized activity in pairs of people specifically during back-and-forth, face-to-face communication, and not in other types of in-person communication (e.g. back-to-back communication or monologues).

More Details

The authors used a method called functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS)-based hyperscanning to measure the brain activity simultaneously in sets of two people involved in face-to-face conversations.  For more information on fNIRS, see Irani et al (2007) and Ferrari and Quaresima (2012).  The research participants were young adults in the Beijing, China area–10 same-sex pairs that already were acquainted with each other–that had conversations during scanning.  Each pair engaged in 5 different tasks while their brains were scanned:  resting state (eyes closed, relaxed mind, motionless—as baseline condition), face-to-face dialog, face-to-face monologue, back-to-back dialog, and back-to-back monologue.  The dialogs were about current news topics.  Participants were allowed to use spontaneous gestures and facial expressions during dialog.  The study found an increase in neural synchronization (synchronized brain activity levels in each member of the pair) in the left inferior frontal cortex (IFC) specifically during face-to-face dialog, but not in the other conditions.  Thus, the neural synchronization in the left IFC occurred in the pair not only when they could see and hear each other’s social cues, but also when they engaged in turn taking (a dialog rather than a monologue).  The left IFC is a hub of the mirror neuron system.  The authors conclude that face-to-face communication is distinctive, in part, because it activates neural circuits differently from other types of communication.  For more on the subject of neural synchronization during social interactions, and the notion of “brain-to-brain coupling,” including the role of this  phenomenon in social behavior development and language development, see a recent review by Hasson et al (2012).

References

Ferrari M, Quaresima V (2012) A brief review on the history of human functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) development and fields of application.  Neuroimage 63(2):921-935.

Hasson U, Ghazanfar AA, Galantucci B, Garrod S, Keysers C (2012) Brain-to-brain coupling:  a mechanism for creating and sharing a social world.  Trends Cogn Sci 16(2):114-121.

Irani F, Platek SM, Bunce S, Ruocco AC, Chute D (2007) Functional near infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS):  an emerging neuroimaging technology with important applications for the study of brain disorders.  Clin Neuropsychol 21(1):9-37.

Jiang J, Dai B, Peng D, Zhu C, Liu L, Lu C (2012) Neural synchronization during face-to-face communication.  Journal of Neuroscience 32(45):16064-16069.

©2011-2013 Edward S. Brodkin.  All Rights Reserved

Social networks, social brain

November 9, 2012

Summary

What circuits in the brain mediate our tendency to socially connect with others?    An article by Bickart et al 2012 finds that the functioning of particular brain circuits—including specific parts of the amygdala, an important hub of the “emotional”/limbic system of the brain—is related to the size and complexity of people’s social networks.

More details

What circuits in the brain mediate our tendency to socially connect with others?    Many studies have implicated brain circuits involving the amygdala and the frontal cortex in social behaviors.  Some of these studies (e.g. Bickart et al 2011) have found a positive correlation between size of social networks and size of the amygdala, an important hub of the “emotional”/limbic system of the brain.  Now a new study (Bickart et al 2012) provides more detailed information about the relationship between specific brain circuits involving subdivisions of the amygdala and size of social networks in healthy, young adult humans.  Bickart and co-workers (2012) measured size of individuals’ social networks using the Social Network Index (Cohen et al 1997).  They used fMRI to measure the size of the each person’s amygdala, and used a method called resting-state functional connectivity magnetic resonance imaging (fcMRI) to assess connectivity between amygdala sub-regions and various other brain regions.  Replicating their previous work (Bickart et al 2011), this 2012 study found a positive correlation between size of the amygdala and size of the social network.  In addition, they found that the strength of a circuit supporting social perception (ventrolateral amygdala connected to orbitofrontal cortex, fusiform gyrus, ventromedial temporal cortex, and superior temporal sulcus) and a circuit supporting social affiliation (medial amygdala connected to ventromedial prefrontal cortex, rostral anterior cingulate cortex, and nucleus accumbens, and ventromedial hypothalamus) predicted social network size.  However, social network size was not related to the strength of a circuit including the dorsal amygdala that supports social aversion.  Moreover, social network size and complexity was not related to connectivity within other networks important for social cognition that do not include the amygdala, specifically networks involved in mentalizing (dorsomedial prefrontal cotex connected to temporoparietal junction) or in mirror networks (ventral premotor cortex, posterior superior temporal sulcus, and intraparietal sulcus).  The authors note that “This dissociation underscores the value of studying the component processes that contribute to social connectedness since there are clearly important divisions of labor.  In this case, the size and complexity of a person’s social network depends more on corticolimbic circuitry that is important for affective processing (Barett and Bar, 2009), which in part evaluates the salience of signals from other people (Seeley et al., 2007), than on corticocortical networks that have more limited relevance for affective processing” (Bickart et al 2012). Importantly, the authors note that their findings do not indicate the extent to which the strength of these circuits related to social network size are “hard-wired” by genetics, or are modifiable by experience or other environmental factors.

References

Barrett LF, Bar M (2009) See it with feeling:  affective predictions during object perception.  Philos Tras R Soc Lond B Biol Sci 364:1325-1334.

Bickart KC, Hollenbeck MC, Barrett LF, Dickerson BC (2012) Intrinsic amygdala-cortical functional connectivity predicts social network size in humans.  Journal of Neuroscience 32:14729-14741.

Bickart KC, Wright CI, Dautoff RJ, Dickerson BC, Barrett LF (2011) Amygdala volume and social network size in humans.  Nature Neuroscience 14:163-164.

Cohen S, Doyle WJ, Skoner DP, Rabin BS, Gwaltney JM Jr (1997) Social ties and susceptibility to the common cold.  JAMA 277:1940-1944.

Seeley WW, Menon V, Schatzberg AF, Keller J, Gover GH, Kenna H, Reiss AL, Greicius MD (2007) Dissociable intrinsic connectivity networks for salience processing and executive control.  Journal of Neuroscience 27:2349-2356.

©2011-2013 Edward S. Brodkin.  All Rights Reserved

Contagious desires

June 20, 2012

Summary

Have you ever noticed that other people around you influence what you find desirable?  Why are we so susceptible to this kind of social influence?  An article by Lebreton and coworkers identifies brain circuits involved in our tendency to want what other people want.  This tendency and the underlying brain circuits may be important in helping us learn from others during our childhoods.

More details

Have you ever noticed that other people around you influence what you find desirable?   Maybe there is some kind of food, other item, or even person that didn’t seem to be too interesting to you until others started ooo-ing and ahh-ing over them.  Why are we so susceptible to this kind of social influence?  This desire contagion seems to be a deep-seated human tendency, and one that is very adaptive during our early development, because we learn a lot from our parents or caretakers from an early age what is desirable and safe, vs. what should be avoided.  But how does the brain mediate this social contagion of desire?  An article by Lebreton and coworkers (The Journal of Neuroscience, May 23, 2012 issue) addresses this question of what brain circuits are involved in the “mimetic desire phenomenon” or “goal contagion.”  The study recruited healthy, young adult (20-39-year-old) subjects who watched videos of people (but not including the faces of the people) reaching for one of two identical objects of different colors.  This was followed by tasks in which the subjects were asked how much they would like to use or acquire either of the identical objects of different color.  During the tasks, some subjects underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).

As expected, the study found that objects that had been sought by the person in the video were more likely to be desired by the subjects.   According to the authors, the fMRI data indicated that mimetic desire was mediated by an interaction between the “mirror neuron system” (parietal lobe and premotor cortex) and the “brain valuation system,” i.e. the brain reward system (ventral striatum and ventromedial prefrontal cortex).  Based on their analysis, the authors argued the mirror neuron system acted on the brain valuation system.

By design, the videos of people reaching for the objects did not include the people’s faces, because the authors wanted to eliminate a focus on joint attention, i.e. the phenomenon that people tend to look at the same stimuli that others are looking at.  The authors argue that the mimetic desire phenomenon that they are studying is distinct from joint attention because the former (mimetic desire) has to do specifically with desire (positively-valenced motivation), whereas the latter (joint attention) could have to do with any type of attentional/motivational salience, including desire, but also novelty or threat (negatively-valenced motivation).  The authors also argue that the phenomenon they studied is distinct from empathy or emotional resonance, because the subjects could not see the face and hence the emotional state of the person reaching in the videos.  In the study, there was no correlation within the subjects between mimetic desire and empathizing or mentalizing ability as measured by other psychological tests (“empathy questionnaire” and “reading mind in the eyes” tests).

Although the authors carefully distinguish the mimetic desire phenomenon from certain processes affected in autism spectrum disorders (ASD), namely joint attention and empathy, this mimetic desire phenomenon still seems potentially relevant to ASD, because individuals with ASD tend to be less influenced by the desires of others around them.  The authors do note, at the end of their manuscript, that the interaction between the mirror neuron system and the brain valuation system interaction might represent an essential method for social learning in early childhood, before sophisticated language skills have developed.  At the end of the paper, the authors raise the hypothesis that the mirror neuron system might be functionally disconnected from the brain valuation system in individuals with ASD, resulting in their being relatively unaffected by the motivations of others.  But because this study did not involve subjects with ASD, more studies would be needed to test that hypothesis.

Reference:

Lebreton M, Kawa S, Forgeot d’Arc B, Daunizeau J, Pessiglione M (2012) Your goal is mine:  unraveling mimetic desires in the human brain. Journal of Neuroscience 32(21):7146-7157.

©2011-2013 Edward S. Brodkin.  All Rights Reserved

Socializing takes serious amounts of brain power

February 19, 2012

Summary

How much brain power does it really take to socialize?  An article by Ybarra and Winkielman (2012) points out the many higher order brain functions that are required to skillfully interact with other people.  Learning to interact skillfully can be challenging for any of us, and perhaps it is no wonder that so many psychiatric and brain developmental disorders can adversely affect one’s ability to interact socially.

More Details

When we think of activities that need a lot of brain power, we often think of solitary intellectual activities, such as solving math problems, writing, or composing music.  We may not realize how much brain power it takes to skillfully engage in social interactions, and to form and maintain relationships.  When I refer to social interactions, I’m not talking so much about the routine, “Hi, how are you today?” greetings that we may say as we pass each other in the hall—for most of us, these are reflexive and relatively effortless.  Instead, what I’m referring to is the more in depth, more unpredictable social interactions that are the essential core of real relationships.  In order to really relate well to another person, we ideally need to be aware of and express our own thoughts and feelings, through various modes of expression (speech, tone of voice, eye contact, facial expression, body posture, etc) and simultaneously be attuned to and perceiving the other person’s speech and expressed thoughts and emotions, again integrating various sensory modalities and higher order processing of cognitive and emotional information.  To do this, we need to be consistently aware and adapting in this complex, unpredictable situation.  This demands an unusually high level of moment-to-moment awareness and mindfulness, both of the variations in our own inner state and, simultaneously, the variations in the state and expressions of our partner.  And interactions within larger groups can quickly become exponentially more complex.  Solitary thinking, or interacting with in-animate, and more predictable objects, whether a basketball or a computer, as hard as those skills are, seem simpler in comparison, when you begin to consider it.  Given the complexity and demands of social interactions, and the level of integrated brain power involved, is it any wonder that people’s social behaviors are vulnerable to being disrupted in a variety of situations or neurodevelopmental disorders?   And is it any wonder that most of us need some “downtime” to ourselves?  A very interesting article by Ybarra O and Winkielman P (2012) just came out on the role of the brain’s executive functions in the ability to flexibly engage in social interactions:

As the article points out, executive functions of the brain, which are largely mediated by the brain’s frontal lobe (also reviewed in Miller EK and Wallis JD 2009 Encyclopedia of Neuroscience 4:99-104), include working memory and updating of those working memories; attention and cognitive control; and inhibition.  Ybarra and Winkielman do a really nice job of summarizing the cognitive challenges of engaging in social interactions, and some of the brain functions that are required.  For example, to quote from the first two lines of the abstract of the article…

“A successful social interaction often requires on-line and active construction of an ever-changing mental-model of another person’s beliefs, expectations, emotions, and desires.  It also requires the ability to maintain focus, problem-solve, and flexibly pursue goals in a distraction-rich environment, as well as the ability to take-turns and inhibit inappropriate behaviors.” (Ybarra and Winkielman 2012)

The more you consider the level of brain power involved in skillful social interactions, it really is amazing that any of us is able to do it!  I think interacting with others well is a challenge for all of us, and perhaps it’s a work in progress for all of us.

Reference

Ybarra O and Winkielman P 2012 On-line social interactions and executive functions. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience 6 (Article 75):1-6.

©2011-2013 Edward S. Brodkin.  All Rights Reserved


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