In Their Hot Topic Talks, Four Rising Experimenters Explored Relationships Between Neural Mechanisms and Behavior
Social Distress Causes Physical Pain
Naomi I. Eisenberger, University of California, Los Angeles, presented the first social-cognitive neuroscience hot topic talk, “Why Does Rejection Hurt?” Similarities between our expressions of physical and social pain led Eisenberger to investigate the neural mechanisms underlying social pain, and whether they are the same as those associated with physical pain.
She and colleagues designed a computer game, “Cyberball,” where a person plays with two simulated teammates and is eventually excluded. Using fMRI, they found that the anterior cingulate cortex, an area of the brain connected with physical pain, was activated during participants’ social distress after being left out.
This led Eisenberger to “think of the ACC as an alarm system” that detects conflict and indicates distress. She also suggested that rejection hurts because of “our need to maintain social contact,” which is evolutionarily advantageous.
Quit Foolin’: Ways the Brain Prevents Embarrassment
Jennifer S. Beer, University of California , Berkeley , presented “Executive Control and Social Behavior,” an investigation of how we adjust our behavior by situation. “We somehow seamlessly do this,” she said, but not everyone can. Beer studied individuals with extreme social disinhibition on account of damaged Orbitofrontal Cortices, and predicted that this area of the brain impacts “awareness of how behavior comes across in the moment.”
Orbitofrontal patients and a control group participated in an embarrassing questionnaire. The control group responded with “modest embarrassment,” whereas Orbitofrontal patients were inappropriately familiar, and proud of it. However, after viewing a videotape of their behavior, Orbitofrontal patients’ embarrassment increased, while controls did not express significant embarrassment.
Beer suggested that before seeing the video, patients “could not be experiencing the emotions they should, because they are not aware of what their behavior is.” She concluded that the Oribitofrontal Cortex “seems to help us monitor our behavior” through awareness of actions and context. Beer demonstrated that the human brain is built to prevent people from making fools of themselves. Despite science, though, many of us still manage this.
Our Brains Give ‘Special Status’ to Emotional Events
Adam K. Anderson, University of Toronto , discussed the neuroscience of emotion and attention. Emotionally arousing events have “special attentional status,” more so than neutral events. This, in turn, shapes perceptual experience.
Anderson focused on the amygdala as the mechanism by which emotional salience shapes perception. He studied patients with damaged amygdalae. A control group and patient group viewed a series of black words with instructions to watch out for green ones. When green words appeared, participants were tested for an attentional blink, a momentary gap in attention that occurs after actively attending a stimulus. Control participants exhibited the blink, but patients did not.
This suggests that the amygdala fosters selective attention for emotionally arousing stimuli. Without it, “automatic vigilance” would be impossible, and we’d have to attend to all stimuli. The amygdala allows us to focus on the salient events in our lives and build experience in this selective way. Anderson ‘s study suggests that emotion shapes our understanding of the world.
Is Intelligence Fixed or Flexible?
Jennifer Mangels, Columbia University , discussed “The Influence of Intelligence Beliefs on Attention and Learning.” She and colleagues explored two beliefs about intelligence: the Entity Theory and the Incremental Theory. Entity theorists conceive of intelligence as fixed, while Incremental theorists view it as flexible. Mangels’ study examined how intelligence beliefs affect attention and, consequently, learning.
In a question-and-feedback task, neural activity was measured after each question and after each response. The highest neural activity occurred after incorrect answers about which participants were highly confident. Incremental theorists took longer to realize they had answered incorrectly. On the contrary, Entity theorists have a “bottom-up” attention style and are quicker to spot incorrect responses that threaten intelligence. This makes them “even less likely to engage in effortful conceptual processing,” whereas Incremental theorists have been shown to pay greater attention to low confidence errors and are more able to learn from mistakes.
When offered the chance to change their answers and receive extra tutoring, the Incremental group took far more advantage of these opportunities. The difference in academic success between the groups appears to be related to the view of negative feedback. Entity thinkers “interpret it as a threat” and disengage, while Incremental students use it as a challenge to learn more. In the future, the study will investigate gender stereotypes and the success of math students.
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