Social Cognitive Neuroscience Goes Hollywood

Hollywood’s Sunset Strip has often been the stomping ground of rising stars and glitterati. It was no different earlier this year, when 250 social psychologists, cognitive neuroscientists, brain mappers, neuropsychologists, anthropologists, political scientists and economists descended on the Hyatt West Hollywood for the inaugural Social Cognitive Neuroscience conference. For three intense days, conference-goers attended invited symposia, perused a poster session, and participated in roundtable discussions about whether, how, and why minds and social environments are linked.

“I’m in seventh heaven,” reported neuro-psychologist David Perret of the University of St. Andrews, capturing the almost giddy energy of the conference-goers. “Psychology often seems polarized between people who accept physical or biological explanations and people who want to describe phenomena and not look for biological mechanisms. Here we see the marriage of the two. It’s really exciting.”

Psychologists from the more social science end of the spectrum were equally jazzed by the meeting. “My personal feeling,” said Dartmouth social psychologist Neil Macrae, “is that we can only really understand the functioning of the social mind if social psychologists embrace cognitive neuroscience and start to open lines of communication. What’s exciting about this meeting is that those lines of communication are beginning to develop.”


Through one of those recently-opened lines of communication comes the question, “What exactly is social cognitive neuroscience?”

The answer seems to be: “Depends who you ask.”

Quite a few researchers take social cognitive neuroscience to be an exploration of neural and physiological reactions to social stimuli. For example, social psychologist Wendy Mendes of the University of California, Santa Barbara, looks at how perceivers’ cardiovascular systems respond differently to stereotypical and counter-stereotypical conversation partners. The data she presented showed that stereotypical partners – a disadvantaged Latina, an Asian with a standard American accent – evoked responses such as increased ventricle contractility and increased cardiac output that are associated with meeting a surmountable challenge, while counter-stereotypical conversation partners – an economically disadvantaged white person, an Asian with a Southern accent – evoked responses such as increased ventricle contractility and no change in cardiac output, which are associated with meeting an insurmountable threat.


Mendes’ use of physiological measures was not representative of the research presented at the conference, however. Most researchers of the physical-responses-to-social-stimuli brand fired up the fMRI for their studies. Their data revealed differences in neural responses to same-race and different-race faces, to subliminal and supraliminal stereotype primes, to social and non-social images, to controlled and uncontrolled emotional experiences, and to perceptual and verbal stimuli – just to name a few.

But Matthew Lieberman, a social psychologist at UCLA and a conference organizer, is quick to point out that this is not your father’s fMRI. Gone are the days of “lite-brite” imaging, when the name of the game was atheoretically mapping neural “hot spots” (referred to disparagingly in some quarters as “color phrenology”). Here to stay, he says, is a theory-driven pursuit of neural systems and circuits, with an eye toward doing justice to the most complex three pounds of tissue in the universe.

Lieberman views the research of Princeton cognitive neuroscientist Jonathan Cohen as the shape of things to come. Cohen, who holds both a PhD in cognitive psychology and an MD, combines neural network modeling, neuroimaging, and clinical methodologies to chase down the neural correlates of cognitive control and its allocation.

In his keynote address, Cohen pitched his research in terms of a mundane problem: When we have an itchy mosquito bite, and we know we shouldn’t scratch it, how do we not scratch it? In other words, how do cognitive representations trump biological urges?

Cohen’s research suggests that reining in habitual responses to accord with our goals involves a cycle of behavior, conflict monitoring and cognitive control. In monitoring conflict, the brain senses tension between competing behavioral responses – such as “Scratch!” and “Don’t Scratch!”- then alerts areas downstream that cognitive control may be needed. Cognitive control, in turn, makes one of the responses more likely by inhibiting one response and exciting the other. This inhibition and excitation changes the relative strength of the competing responses, which the conflict monitor then reassesses. And away we go again, until a behavior bubbles to the surface.


Cohen first constructed a neural network model that simulated people’s performance on the Stroop task (that’s the one where the word “red” is written in green ink, so that your conflict monitor is flooded with “Red! Green!”). Having modeled a plausible way that human brains might deal with this task, Cohen then used fMRI to find regions in the brain that corresponded to the conflict monitor and the controller in the neural network model. These turned out to be the anterior cingulate cortex (which is thought to play an evaluative function in cognitive control), and the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (which has a central role in analytical thinking). With this combination of data, Cohen provided both a complex and complete picture of the cognitive and neural mechanisms in conflict monitoring and control.

Perhaps even more significantly, Cohen supplied additional evidence that emotion and cognition are intimately intertwined.

Control is a cognitive process, while conflict monitoring falls under the rubric of evaluative and affective processes. Traditionally, cognitive psychologists have shied away from the latter, leaving the study of emotion to scientists who are used to less precise, murkier work. Now, Cohen explains, cognitive neuroscientists are beginning to reckon that “motivation, affect, and evaluative functions are not just fuzzy, muddy, ill-defined things that exist in the farthest chasms of our minds, but can be subject to formal scientific scrutiny and, ultimately, analysis.” Indeed, Cohen’s research suggests that cognition and emotion are like love and marriage in the old Sinatra song – you can’t have one without the other.


Other research presented at the SCN conference not only suggested that the fence between cognition and emotion was built too tall, but also hinted that the demarcations between self and other, between human and non-human, and between mind and society may likewise have been drawn too darkly. Stirring evidence for humans’ inherent connections to other humans, to other species, and to the cultures with which they engage was served up by a bevy of mirror neuron researchers.

Mirror neurons were originally discovered in the ventral premotor cortex of macaques, and are called “mirrors” because they fire both when an individual itself does something physical (like grasping a handle) and when it sees another individual performing the same task. In other words, the neurons respond to both monkey see and monkey do.

This monkey business is not just for monkeys, however; humans seem to have mirror neuron homologues. Marco Iacoboni, a neuroscientist at the UCLA School of Medicine, presented data hinting that humans also have mirror-like mechanisms in Broca’s area (which is involved in speech production and comprehension) and the superior temporal sulcus (a higher order visual area). Moreover, researchers speculate that mirror neurons exist not just for vision and speech, but also for emotions, body schema, and somatic sensations.

Mirror neurons are a big deal, although researchers vary a bit in their reasons for thinking so.

Some, like Vittorio Gallese of the University of Parma, think that they form the neural basis of understanding others’ actions and intentions, which, in turn, gives rise to theory of mind – the ability of humans and some other primates to attribute mental states to others. Others, like Andrew Whiten of the University of St. Andrews, see in mirror neurons the neural architecture for imitation and social learning – processes which undergird cultural transmission.

Still others, like Stephanie Preston of the University of California, Berkeley, view mirror neurons as one instance of a more general perception-action mechanism (PAM) that is present in many species. Preston contends that this mechanism is nothing less than “the glue that binds social groups together,” manifesting itself in such diverse phenomena as emotional contagion, empathy, sympathy, altruism, and guilt.

If mirror neurons are related to language and cultural transmission – those nifty human predilections – and monkeys and apes have mirror neurons, why don’t monkeys and apes have language and culture to the same degree as humans? If they’re packing basically the same equipment, why aren’t they showing the same behavior?

Of course, humans’ heftier brains account for some of these differences, and that bipedalism must have something to do with it, too. Yet equally important to any evolved gadgetry in our own biology, argues Merlin Donald, a Professor of Psychology at Queen’s University at Kingston, is humans’ unique ability to share our brains with other people. Or, as he puts it, “The primary cognitive adaptation of the human species is the capacity for creating distributed cognitive systems, or communities of mind.”

In his talk, Donald traced the co-evolution of the human brain and human culture over two million years of hominid history. At times, culture adapted to changes in brain physiology, and at times the brain adapted to changes in culture. This indicates that it was not the evolution of mind by itself, or the evolution of culture by itself, that accounts for humans’ special tricks. Rather, it is the symbiosis of mind and society that seems to be humans’ evolutionary coup.


While Donald’s talk was unique in its retelling of the grand sweep of evolutionary history, most of the speakers at the conference dabbled in the evolutionary arts. More so than in many areas of psychology, the “why” in social cognitive neuroscience is natural selection.

Other areas of psychology and its precursors have evoked the devil, your mother, your social class, your situation, your personality, or your genes in explaining behavior. Increasingly, social cognitive neuroscience implies and asserts that you do what you do because that is what organisms like you, who spent the past three billion years slogging out of the primordial morass to become tool-using, culture-capitulating, language-emitting bipeds, are built to do.

Evolutionary explanations for human behaviors still make some psychologists skittish, and rightly so, given some of the more unsavory and controversial conclusions that evolutionary psychology has served up. Neophyte social cognitive neuroscientists likewise recognize that evolutionary theory is not exactly something you can learn off the back of a cereal box. Their more biologically-schooled colleagues agree.

“I did a whole zoology degree to understand evolution,” said Andrew Whiten, a professor of psychology at the University of St. Andrews. “Evolution is the whole of the natural world, for goodness sake. To understand that is a degree’s worth of work, or more.”

As a result, many speakers borrowed a modest coinage of Neil Macrae: “When I say ‘evolution’, I’m saying it with a lowercase ‘e’.”

Attempts to apply evolutionary theory to social psychological research were favorably received. One such program of research was presented by Macrae. In a series of studies playfully entitled “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?” Macrae tested how the biological relevance of a target affects the perceiver’s construal process. Reasoning that it could be advantageous for women to be able to identify men rapidly when they are at high conception risk (i.e., around the time of ovulation), Macrae measured how quickly women classified males and females at different times of their menstrual cycles. He found that women at high risk for pregnancy identified male faces faster than female faces, and that high-risk women were faster than low-risk women at classifying male faces.


In general, most of the speakers’ attempts at begging, borrowing, and stealing from other fields were smiled upon. Yet conference attendants noted a few areas in which the science could improve. A common wish was for better technology, such as a magnet built for two, or portable, non-invasive apparatuses that are not sensitive to motion.

While better machines would allow experiments more closely to model real-world situations, some social scientists feel that the largest problems lie with the very conceptualization of what is “social.”

“The social part of social cognitive neuroscience is still very primitive,” said Susanne Lohmann, a political scientist at UCLA. “The work presented is still important stuff, but it’s essentially about individuals and how they make sense of other individual’s faces, or how they take another individual’s perspective. Social cognitive neuroscience should also examine the interaction between individuals and social structures, which is a very different and very important issue.”

Comparative psychologists like Whiten, on the other hand, suggested that the focus of SCN is already too human: “If we’re going to have a field of social cognitive neuroscience, in principle, it should embrace the whole of the animal kingdom, or at least all of the animals that are social or have something like a brain. At this point, we’re only talking about a handful of species on the planet. But some of the bugs are social. They have brains. They learn. Shouldn’t we be studying them, too? Some of the greatest strides in science have come from studying simple systems. Because we are at the beginning of this field, it’s important to keep our options, and our minds, open.”

Despite these limitations, social cognitive neuroscience is a field full of potential. One of its major promises is to illuminate the relationships between psychological phenomena that are usually considered distinct – such as cognition and emotion, self and other, mind and society-as well as the distinctions between phenomena that are often considered related. A major sign that this field’s time has come is that many of the talks could have appeared in more than one symposium. Psychology’s usual borders no longer seem to fit the data.

With so many scintillating points, as yet unconnected, the next phase in the field will be like drawing constellations on another planet’s sky. This prospect struck conference-goers as both tantalizing and overwhelming.

“It’s been one of the worst experiences of my life,” quipped Dartmouth social psychologist Todd Heatherton, in the festive spirit that pervaded the conference. “There are so many exciting new ways to think, so many interesting ideas emerging from other fields, and so many studies that are just begging to be done that it has given us too much work. It has complicated the next few years of my life.”

Even innocent bystanders like this writer left the conference with the uncomfortable, yet pleasing, sensation of having one’s mind pried open and filled with the unexpected.

Hmm…wonder what that looks like in fMRI …

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