Social Neuroscience Definition
“Social neuroscience may be broadly defined as the exploration of the neurological underpinnings of the processes traditionally examined by, but not limited to, social psychology.” (Definiton of Social Neuroscience writen by Jean Decety and Julian Paul Keenan in the first issue of Social Neuroscience Journal.)
“Social neuroscience is an interdisciplinary field devoted to understanding how biological systems implement social processes and behavior, and to using biological concepts and methods to inform and refine theories of social processes and behavior.” (Wikipedia)
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Summary of Social Neuroscience
Social neuroscience is an interdisciplinary field that began in the early 1990s. Here, biological and social research approaches are regarded as complementary approaches to knowledge that examine socially grown structures beyond the individual. Research areas are the neuronal, humoral, cellular and genetic mechanisms underlying these structures. It is assumed that there is a reciprocal influence on different structural levels. A particular focus is on the functional examination of brain processes. The processes investigated are on the intraindividual level, such as social perception and social cognition, as well as on the interindividual level, such as social interaction and social influence. The integration of different research approaches requires interdisciplinary expertise and the integration of different data levels.
Due to the different parent disciplines, the interdisciplinary field makes use of a multitude of different methods (fMRI, TMS, EEG, ECG, EMG, endocrinology, SCR, lesion studies, animal models). The challenge lies in the integration of human data from social approaches with biological animal models. The basic idea of the research is to find explanations for previous conditions, to locate involved structures, to describe underlying processes and to predict their consequences. The multiple determinacy of human behavior makes it necessary to consider different levels of analysis already at the theoretical stage. Complex functional constructs (e.g. prejudice, attachment, empathy, trust) must be broken down into their subunits in order to represent meaningful analytical units.
Doctrine of Multilevel Analysis
The doctrine of multi-level analysis goes back to Cacioppo and Berntson (1992) and is to be regarded as a basic principle of the research field of social neuroscience. It takes into account the different data and levels of analysis and is based on three principles:
-Multiple antecedents: A target event at a structural level can have different triggers within that level or across different levels; if a trigger is hidden, this leads to an incomplete understanding.
-Nonadditive determinism: The properties of the whole cannot necessarily be predicted additively from the properties of the components.
-Reciprocal determinism: There is a reciprocal influence between biological and social factors with regard to the shaping of target behavior.
The Golden Triangle of Human Neuroscience
Since the different research approaches in the social neurosciences allow different conclusions to be drawn, Decety and Cacioppo (2010) propose to consider three interrelated approaches that can be regarded as equally important:
-Behavioural data (e.g. reaction time, choice, judgement)
-Physiological measurements (e.g. imaging techniques): the measurements provide correlative data of the human brain.
-Animal and human experiments (lesion studies, TMS, experimental pharmacology): the experimental data allow causal statements.
Only the combination of different approaches, e.g. in meta-analyses, enables deeper insights to be gained and a scientific consensus to be reached on a topic beyond tasks and situations.
The social brain
The adaptation of the brain to social processes explains the complexity of the human brain. The investigation of the neuronal structures underlying social cognition raises the question of whether there are specific social interaction modules or whether social cognition uses general cognitive mechanisms.
Field of research
There are many areas in which the findings from the social neurosciences can be incorporated. Classical studies exist, for example, on the recognition of emotional facial expression as well as on impairments in social behaviour with preserved intelligence after damage in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex. Damasio’s work clarifies the role of emotion in social decision-making, and current research areas include mental health, in the maintenance of which social relationships play a fundamental role. The psychopathology of the social brain and its plasticity are the focus of research. The understanding of mental disorders can be expanded to a holistic picture through the integration of social, psychological and neurological mechanisms. Another line of research is empathy research. Empathy expresses itself on the neuronal level, i.e. when looking at the emotions of a person, a similar pattern of activation is found as in one’s own experience of the same emotion. The diversity of the research areas illustrates the social potential of the social neurosciences.