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


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.

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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.


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


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