Developing Social Brain

This blog investigates the neurobiological (brain) basis of social behavior development, both in the many variations of “typical” development, as well as in neurodevelopmental disorders, such as autism spectrum disorders. My hope is that the blog is interesting and understandable, both to specialists in the field and to anyone else who is fascinated by this subject.  By investigating current research, developments, and debates in this area, the blog will explore questions like these:

–Why are we predisposed to be interested in interacting with other people, starting in earliest infancy and continuing throughout our lives?  What is the brain basis of sociability / social motivation?

–Why do we seek out and take pleasure in the company and friendship of others, and feel lonely when we don’t have the company of friends?  What is the brain basis of social reward?

–On the other hand, why do we sometimes find too much togetherness unpleasant?  What is the brain basis of social aversion or social anxiety?

–What affects the level of interpersonal closeness or space that we prefer, the balance of attachment vs. independence that we prefer, and our tendency to be influenced by others vs. to be autonomous?  How are these preferences and tendencies mediated by brain function?

–How do we perceive and understand verbal and nonverbal social cues from others?  How do we learn to send off our own social cues to others?  What is the brain basis of social communication?

–How do we process social cues from others so that we can understand their state of mind, their emotions, their intentions, and learn about them?  How do we understand ourselves, and our own thoughts, feelings, and motivations toward others?  What is the brain basis of social cognition and how does it shape our interactions with others?

–How do we develop social skills necessary for navigating the social world of school, work, family, and friends?  What is the brain basis of social skill development?

–What is the neurobiology of aggression, dominance hierarchies, bullying, and social rejection/exclusion, regarding both those who are being aggressive and those on the receiving end of the aggression?

–What is the neurobiology of libido?

–How are our “social brains” and social behaviors shaped by our genes and by environmental factors (environmental factors in the broadest sense, including many non-genetic biological factors, as well as social and cultural experiences and relationships, etc.), and how do these factors contribute to individual differences in social behaviors and development?

–How do our brains change during our interactions with others, including formation and maintenance of attachments to our own parents or early caregivers, friendships, romantic relationships, relationships with our own children, and other social bonds?  How do these experiences shape the development of our later social relationships?

–What is the brain basis of separation distress and grieving?

–How does the social brain and social behavior develop and change across our lifespan?

–What are the biological bases of autism spectrum disorders (ASD), and other neurodevelopmental and psychiatric disorders that affect social behavior development?  How do genes and environmental factors affect brain and social behavior development in ASD?  How might the latest research lead to development of new methods of diagnosis and treatments for ASD?

–How do treatments and services for individuals with ASD aimed at enhancing social motivation, social cognition, social skills, and overall social functioning affect brain structure and function?  How can our growing understanding of neurobiology inform the development of such treatments and services?

Research on the social brain is increasingly being applied in the fields of psychology, medicine, biotechnology, the pharmaceutical industry, law, education, and social media /networks.  What opportunities and ethical dilemmas could these applications bring?

Research on the developing social brain is an emerging and rapidly growing field, still at very early stages.  There are huge gaps in our knowledge, which makes this an open scientific frontier.  What we do know so far indicates that social behavior development is highly complex, is influenced by many processes within individuals and in the social environment, and is richly variable among individuals.  Disentangling the many biological, psychological, and social factors involved is challenging, because the brain mediates behavior/thought/emotion, and social experiences, in turn, affect the biology and development of the brain.  In investigating the neurobiology of social behaviors, it’s good to be wary of several fallacies:  oversimplified reductionism (e.g. reducing a behavior/thought/emotion to the function of a single gene, neurotransmitter, or brain region, or even to a small set of those); overgeneralizing (e.g. losing sight of the tremendous diversity of individuals’ experiences and developmental trajectories); and rigid, biological determinism (the fallacy that our behavior or mental life is completely determined and controlled by a single or small set of biological factors).  In fact, the more we learn about the stunning complexity and malleability of our brains, from a molecular level to a synaptic and circuitry level, and its intimate interaction with the social environment, the clearer it becomes that an informed neurobiology is not inherently simplistic, reductionistic, or deterministic—in fact, one could argue, it can be just the opposite.

Something worth keeping in mind regarding each post:  the results of any scientific study are just that—only one study.  No single study is perfect or is the final word on any subject.  Theories and hypotheses need to be revisited and tested repeatedly; new technologies and data become available; and our understanding keeps evolving.  Stay tuned as we continue to explore and investigate new findings on the developing social brain.

About the Author of Developing Social Brain, Edward S. (“Ted”) Brodkin, M.D.

photos (3 of 89)

–A.B., Harvard College, magna cum laude in History of Science

–M.D., Harvard Medical School

–Pediatrics internship at Yale-New Haven Medical Center

–Psychiatry residency at Yale-New Haven Medical Center

–Postdoctoral fellowship in neurobiology research at Yale University School of Medicine

–Postdoctoral fellowship in genetics research at Princeton University, Department of Molecular Biology

–Currently, Associate Professor of Psychiatry with tenure and Director of the Adult Autism Spectrum Program, Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania

–Research, teaching, and clinical work are focused on autism spectrum disorders, and, more generally, on social behavior development and its biological basis.

–A list of some peer-reviewed publications by Edward S. Brodkin and co-authors can be found on PubMed.


My research at Yale, Princeton, and the University of Pennsylvania has been supported by various funding agencies, primarily by the National Institute of Mental Health / National Institutes of Health, but, to a lesser extent, by various other federal and state governmental agencies, foundations, and corporations.   The Developing Social Brain blog and my work on the blog has never received grant support or any type of funding from any of these entities or from any other governmental agencies, foundations, corporations, or universities.  The content of Developing Social Brain, including any analyses, interpretations, or conclusions made, is solely the responsibility of Edward S. Brodkin and does not necessarily represent the official views of any university, of the National Institute of Mental Health, the National Institutes of Health, or of any other federal or state agency or private foundation or corporation.  The Developing Social Brain blog has no connection, directly or indirectly, with the University of Pennsylvania or any other university.

The Developing Social Brain blog is not intended to provide medical advice, nor does it intend to create a doctor-patient relationship between the author and any reader.  The purpose of the blog is to provide information about research on the developing social brain.  Much of the research discussed in the blog is in early stages of development, is the subject of ongoing investigation and even controversy among researchers in the field, has not yet led to consensus opinion among experts, may not be approved for medical diagnosis or treatment, and may not be directly applicable to current medical practice.  Any reader with specific medical or psychiatric questions about themselves or others should contact their own physician for advice.  Any emergencies should be addressed by calling 911 or proceeding to a hospital emergency department.

Blog Comment Policy

I welcome you to share your perspectives by commenting on posts.  Due to time limitations, I am sorry that I typically will not be able to respond to readers’ comments or questions.  However, I will do my best to read all comments and consider reader input.  I reserve the right to take down or block any comments that I deem to be inappropriate, e.g. because it contains illegal content, is harassing, does not contribute to a civil discussion of the subject matter, etc.

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


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