Toward Social Neuroscience

Leonhard Schilbach
Leonhard Schilbach

As a psychiatrist and lecturer in experimental psychiatry and social neuroscience, I am interested in how human beings understand and make sense of each other. My research is based on the assumption that social cognition is fundamentally different when we are engaged with others in real-time social interactions than when we are merely observing them. In particular, I am interested in exploring the ways in which social interaction and interpersonal coordination can be motivating and rewarding, and how they interact with other aspects of cognition and processes of self-regulation.

Social neuroscience is an emerging, interdisciplinary field of research, which started out with the goal of investigating the neural mechanisms of social cognition and social interaction. Although great achievements and insights have been gained with regard to the former, investigating the brain processes relevant to the latter has been much more difficult.

As a result of a growing number of studies in the field of social neuroscience, these two neuro-anatomically distinct large-scale neural networks have entered onto centre stage as the neural substrates of social cognition. Mirror neuron system (MNS) has been taken as evidence of a so-called ‘simulationist’ account of social cognition, which suggests we use our own mental states and project them onto others in order to understand them. This has been described as giving us a ‘first-person grasp of the goals and intentions of other individuals. Meanwhile, ‘mentalizing’ network (MENT) has been interpreted as evidence for a so-called ‘Theory-Theory’ account of social cognition, which suggests that we have an inferential, reflective and ‘third-person’ grasp of other individuals’ mental states. Interestingly, very recent findings indicate that the two large-scale networks connect during social interaction as compared to social observation.

Second-person neuroscience seeks to shed new light on social interaction by taking an interdisciplinary approach, which is grounded in current philosophical and psychological considerations of the roles of social interaction for interpersonal understanding. It uses innovative and multimodal experimental approaches to conduct original empirical work in the field of social neuroscience.

It remains unclear whether activity in large-scale neural networks is modulated by the degree to which a person does or does not feel actively involved in an on-going interaction and whether the networks might subserve complementary or mutually exclusive roles in this instance. The suggestion of a second-person neuroscience has, thus, been to investigate network activity during social interaction rather than social observation as suggested by first-/third-person accounts of social cognition. Adopting this second-person approach to investigate social understanding and explore it empirically using functional neuroimaging and interactive eye-tracking promises new insights into the neurobiological correlates of real-time social interaction.

It has become a prominent suggestion that psychiatric disorders, such as autism, can be construed as disorders of social cognition, as many patients have difficulties in social relations. While I agree very much with this overall suggestion, my impression is that most of the research in social neuroscience has focused on social cognition from an observer’s point of view. Much less is known about the neural mechanisms of social interaction, which is social cognition from an interactor’s point of view. While psychiatric disorders can affect explicit processes during social observation, the core impairments of many such disorders — at least in my view – are more closely related to disturbances of the implicit processes of interpersonal coordination during social interaction. Consequently, expanding knowledge of the neural mechanisms of social interaction should enable better understanding of the neurobiology of psychiatric disorders which, in turn, might be useful to evaluate treatment options.

Personally, I feel privileged to have the opportunity to interact with patients and to also do research into what I view to be the most important questions concerning what it means to be human and how this relates to the brain’s amazing capacity to integrate information.


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