by Gabriela Correia Teixeira, Graduating in Psychology; Ana Maria Mazon Araújo, Graduating in Psychology; and Michael Jackson Oliveira de Andrade, Doctor of Psychology
All authors are with the Laboratory of Neuroscience, Chronobiology and Sleep Psychology, Department of Psychology, State University of Minas Gerais in Minas Gerais, Brazil.
Funding: No funding was provided.
Disclosures: The authors have no conflicts of interest relevant to the content of this article.
Innov Clin Neurosci. 2022;19(4–6):33–35.
Neural mechanisms are traditionally examined from different theoretical angles. Similarly, social neuroscience emphasizes the important role that the social environment and neural systems play in the development of social behavior. Thus, this study aims to describe how social neuroscience uses the brain mapping theory and hypothesis testing approach to explain the functioning of social cognition. This approach points out that brain areas, such as the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC), lateral temporal cortex, and dorsal anterior cingulate cortex, are specialized in processing social information. These areas are also linked to the regulation of interpersonal relationships, social cooperation, values, empathy, and moral behavior. However, how does social neuroscience explain the phenomena of social behavior? What is the explanation of the social self? Social neuroscience has theoretical and methodological features that bring it closer to a paradigm of social research and neuroscience; the form of mechanistic analysis of biological and cognitive structures broadly describes a neurocognitive mechanism for explaining human social behavior.
Keywords: Neurosciences, neural validation, social behavior
The term “social cognition” is widely diverse in its meaning but generally refers to the mental operations that underlie social interactions, including perception, interpretation of intentions, personal dispositions, and behaviors related to self and others.1 Although social cognition is a valuable and promising field in neuroscience that seeks to understand the nature of the main neurobiological mechanisms of mental disorders, the concepts and definitions of this field have resulted in some theoretical problems,2 mainly concerning the construction of cognitive processing related to social phenomena. For example, we can ask ourselves, “Where does discrimination and social judgment occur in the brain? How is intention and control of social motivations realized? Where is the self? How do I perceive the other?” Faced with these questions, this study aims to describe how social neuroscience has been using the theory of mapping the structural and functional processes of the nervous system and the hypothesis testing approach to explain the functioning of social cognition.
Mapping the human brain is a pinnacle of modern cognitive neuroscience.3 In recent years, we have seen increasing progress in understanding neural substrates of social behavior due to the representation of spatial and temporal structures of the actively functioning brain. According to the mechanistic theory of human cognition, neurocognitive mechanisms describe symbolic representation maps of information processing properties.2 It has also identified processes and structures that underlie the phenomena of sensation and perception and has proposed subsidies to explain our social judgments and describe the way we reason, decide, and guide our behavior. For example, the emphasis that social cognition uses different areas of the visual system that are functionally specialized for the perception of complex stimuli, among them face perception, and that the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex (dmPFC) and temperature and the temporoparietal junction (TPJ), form associative structures that might be involved in the representation of other people’s intentions, emotions, or actions. In other words, these mechanisms are the first sensory-perceptual steps in the formation of social constructs. We know that complex, elementary stimuli form macroneural networks that are fundamental to the formation of activity and cognitive elaboration of the mental world.3 Thus, it is possible to attribute sets of neural structures to various stages of information processing for the elaboration of social cognition. The main hypothesis for this event is based on the mapping of the structural and functional processes of the central nervous system (CNS).
We might argue that the different ways of describing social behavior are currently the main issues that make it difficult to understand the role of the brain cortex in social functioning. For example, when we encounter an attractive or trustworthy face, do we engage in the same conditioned physiological mechanisms as when our behavior (and that of other animals) is reinforced by food, or does the way social stimuli are processed differ fundamentally from reward and punishment by nonsocial stimuli? Is a single process implemented by a flexible set of structures, and does a single structure participate in multiple processes, often in different time windows? So far, we have postulated that processing pathways do differ in terms of their automaticity, cognitive penetrability, details of the representations they involve, and speed of processing.3 Brain structures share essential features of a social information processing system, including selectivity (i.e., making distinctions between different types of information), categorization, generalization, and incorporation of the subject’s experiences.2 Thus, various components contribute to social cognition. Furthermore, reappraisal and self-regulation of mental processes are modes of modulating cognitive feedback, through which evaluation and emotional response to social stimuli can be influenced voluntarily.
Main Brain Areas Involved in Social Cognition
Neuroimaging studies have identified a number of brain regions involved in social behavior. For example, research has been conducted on ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) activity and socio-emotional and social cognitive changes,4 and there are studies on the neural basis of theory of mind that involves different brain areas, such as the right and left temporoparietal areas, medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC), posterior cortex, and amygdala .5 The nature of perception in the performance of judgment and impression to understand others and oneself associated with the amygdala system, basal ganglia, vmPFC, lateral temporal cortex, and dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (dACC) has also been studied.6
Furthermore, studies suggest that mental state reasoning, social reward, and self-control processes are correlated with neural networks implicated in the mentalization process (mPFC, left and right TPJs), reward (vmPFC), and self-control (right vmPFC).7 Studies examining descriptive and evaluative aspects of social identity have revealed activation of the mPFC, an area of the brain that has been implicated in a variety of sociocognitive processes, including the self.8 Still, the neural basis for the experience and expression of prejudice focuses primarily on structures involved in emotion and motivation, such as the amygdala, insula, corpus striatum, and orbital and vmPFC regions.9 The cognitive and neural mechanisms surrounding moral behavior relate to the dorsolateral vmPFC and PFC; typically, the right hemisphere is involved with crucial changes for moral cognition,10 in addition to responses from areas of the anterior and superior temporal lobes, which are areas fundamental to social perception.11 In addition, stereotypes involve cortical structures of the temporal lobes and the inferior frontal gyrus associated with representations of social cognition and object.12 These results indicate that there is an extensive neural network involved in the processing of social behavior.13
In addition to its role in recognizing basic emotions, the amygdala is involved in more complex social judgments. For example, it shows differential habituation of activation to faces of people of another race, and its activation is correlated with racial stereotypes of which the viewer might not be aware.12 Therefore, the amygdala’s role in processing stimuli related to potential threats or danger extends to the complex judgments based on whether we approach or trust other people. This does not mean that the amygdala is responsible for judging reliability, rather than being part of the process. Neural-based investigations of judging behavior yield convergent functional imaging results in healthy controls and from injury studies in neurological patients.7
Social neuroscience also acknowledges that brain regions are involved in processing information about the self (i.e., self-knowledge). For example, neuroimaging has identified several regions of the PFC as being crucial for the normal functioning of the social cognition of the self. The influences on self-assessment of social functioning refer to people who report their personality traits, perform self-judgment, and recover memories of events and situations. Although the data indicate that the assessment of social skills themselves occur through social cognition mechanisms, it is important to discuss that the formation of self-knowledge is somewhat controversial, mainly related to perceptions of mental disorders.14
Hypothesis Testing Approach
In social neuroscience, researchers often try to map processes, such as social emotions, self-concept, trait impressions, and attitudes in the brain. Thus, the brain mapping approach is used to establish the mapping between variable and neural structure and to establish the construct validity of the neural measurement.15 If a region is correlated, it simultaneously deduces that it must be the region of the social construct (establishing the construct) and that neural activity is actually associated with this behavior (testing the psychological hypothesis).14
The hypothesis testing approach in social neuroscience is used to test relationships between psychological variables .2 This approach starts with the assumption that a particular brain reflects a specific psychological process. In this regard, it does not refer to brain mapping but instead relies on indicators from previous studies on brain mapping as a process of neural validity. However, it is important to mention that the measure of internal processing refers to competences of physiological flow mediated by measurement instrumentation in neuroscience; this in turn differs from the private behavior (external social) and the actual social functioning of the individual.15 Therefore, this approach to hypothesis testing based on neural validity that is of primary interest to social cognition researchers. As a neural activation is interpreted as reflecting a basic psychological process, higher-level cognitive processes can be mapped more directly onto specific physiological responses.
Despite debate among theorists, these interpretations of cognitive mind maps involved in social cognition are primarily based on empirical evidence and the neural validation hypothesis about the function of brain areas. The roles of brain regions are consistent with their activation during interactions between attention, awareness, and emotion of mental processes.13 As previously mentioned, studies on social cognition have used visual stimuli to explain neural processing involved in social behavior;8 for example, variable and dynamic aspects of the face, such as gaze expression and visual attention, activate areas of the superior temporal sulcus and fusiform gyrus.16 However, other sensory processes are involved in social perception.16 For example, touch is an important channel of social communication, and its neural pathway, described by slow conduction fibers that transmit information about pleasant and light touch to the insula, could underlie the processing of social somatosensory signals.6 Sense of smell provides powerful social signals in other mammals but seems to be less important in humans, the orbitofrontal cortex and amygdala are activated by the emotional quality of odors in humans, and pheromones differentially activate the hypothalamus.16 Hearing provides important social signals, in addition to language.8
Levels of Explanation of the Neural Processing of Social Cognition
The complexity of neural processing of social cognition arises in at least three ways. First, there are parallel processing pathways. Second, there is extensive feedback between different levels of processing, making it difficult to assign levels to any particular hierarchy. Third, stimuli are processed in the context of a background, baseline mode of brain operation that could already introduce substantial biases. Although the data we have reviewed converge on several fundamental brain structures that mediate social cognition, a causal role cannot be emphasized. However, recent studies show that many types of social decisions can also involve neural value calculations.15 This suggests a unification of motivational control mechanisms of behavior that may incorporate social aspects and nonsocial factors.
Social neuroscience has theoretical and methodological characteristics that bring it closer to a social and neuroscience research paradigm; the form of mechanistic analysis of biological and cognitive structures broadly describes a neurocognitive mechanism for explaining human social behavior. However, further investigation of deeper ecological brain and social interactions in nonphysical contexts of the interactions of the social environment (individual and collective thinking) with structures at brain levels should be undertaken.
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- Pinkham AE, Klein HS, Hardaway GB, et al. Neural correlates of social cognitive introspective accuracy in schizophrenia. Schizophr Res. 2018;202:166–172.
- Amy EP, Philip DH, David LP. Social cognition psychometric evaluation: results of the final validation study. Schizophr Bull. 2018;44(4):737–748.
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