Social Neuroscience: Current Understandings and Future Directions

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Social Neuroscience: Current Understandings of the Social Condition and Future Directions
Ian Morton, 2007
Paul Grobstein



The field of social neuroscience offers an opportunity to help bridge the gap between what have traditionally been labeled the “social” sciences and the “hard” sciences. The human social condition has predominately been the concern of social sciences, addressed by fields such as philosophy, sociology, and psychology. However, cognitive neuroscience may offer new insights and valuable contributions towards shaping how sociality is understood. Within the field of cognitive neuroscience, social neuroscience has emerged specifically to take on just this task. Accordingly it will be valuable to assess the current state of the field of social neuroscience, as to its general contributions, the nature of its focuses and methods, and to consider possible future directions.

Social Neuroscience

What is social neuroscience?

Social neuroscience is an emerging field charged with identifying the neural processes and mechanisms underlying social cognition and behavior. More generally, the concern of social neuroscience is to shape a better understanding of the relationship between the brain and social behavior. Approaching this subject, however, is not as straightforward as one might hope; one cannot merely pinpoint specified love, empathy, vengeance, etc. regions in the brain that are the sources of social behavior. The brain and behavior are incredibly complex systems, influencing the function of the other, and operating on vast domains of information thereby constituting an extensive network of factors to consider and account for. A brief elaboration is needed.

It is becoming increasingly evident that the brain does not operate completely via feed-forward, hierarchical processes, stemming from discrete brain “centers” (Adolphs, 2003). Rather, the brain operates on parallel networks of both feed-forward and feed-back loops, distributed across the brain (Waldrop, 1993). That is to say, communication within the brain is multidirectional, with inputs from regions spanning across the brain. The complex nature of brain functioning poses immediate implications for the nature of behavior, as behavior can be understood as a direct function of the brain (Grobstein, Serendip). Behavior is ultimately a result of the brain, but it is important to recognize that it is the continuous and dynamic interplay between the environment and the brain that shapes (both brain and) behavior (Morgan & Schwalbe, 1990; Insel & Dernald, 2004; Gilbert & Wilson, 2007). Note that the brain is here described as the ultimate source of behavior because the environment exerts its influence on behavior through the brain via perception. A deeper examination of the relationship between mind, environment, and behavior will be addressed later.

As both brain and behavior are immensely complex and interrelated structures, social neuroscience faces the problem of deciphering between the influences of numerous factors that are themselves interconnected to various degrees. Since this interconnected nature is fundamental to brain and behavior, it is imperative that researchers of social neuroscience carefully consider both the methodology and interpretation of results as related to this area of study (Adolphs, 2003). It seems that dogmatically adhering to traditional scientific methods (rigidly controlled hypothesis-testing experiments) will not suffice, yielding inconclusive and perhaps inaccurate results (Adolphs, 2003). Thus many researchers believe that social neuroscience stands to benefit by identifying converging results and overarching patterns from diverse and numerous carefully devised studies (Adolphs, 2003; Raichle, 2003; Insel & Dernald, 2004; Sanfey, 2007). Accordingly, social neuroscience has emerged as a largely interdisciplinary field, with valuable contributions from sociology, psychology, philosophy, cognitive neuroscience, and several subfields.

The State of the Field: Current Beliefs and Theories

A comprehensive review of the contributions social neuroscience has thus far made towards an understanding of the social brain and social behavior is beyond the scope of this paper. However, a discussion of some of the predominant themes that have emerged from brain research concerned with understanding the nature of social cognition and interaction will help to characterize the field as it stands today.

The Social Brain

A commonly held notion is that the human brain has evolved largely as a social brain, and that accordingly there are brain mechanisms specialized for the processing of social information. Such a belief is the driving force behind the social brain hypothesis (SBH), according to which the evolution of larger brains in primates was driven by the cognitive demands of group living, thus arguing that group size was limited by cognitive factors such as the neural material available for processing complex social information and dynamics (Zhou et al., 2005; Silk, 2007; Dunbar & Shultz, 2007). The SBH finds support in numerous quantitative correlations between relative neocortex size in primates and degree of various indices of social complexity such as social group size, frequency of coalitions, prevalence of social play, and the frequency of social learning (Dunbar & Shultz, 2007).

Dunbar and Shultz go on to argue that the initiating factor for the evolution of larger social brains was the need to maintain group stability and cohesiveness over time. While group living offers fitness benefits such as protection from predation, it also entails the sharing of resource space and potential mates, and conflicts are therefore likely to arise. Consequently, primates were driven to develop social tolerance through the formation of advanced pair-bonds (Dunbar & Shultz, 2007). They support this claim through citing many examples of qualitative relationships between relative brain size and mating strategy, whereby many vertebrate species that utilize pair-bonded monogamy (bats, ungulates, carnivores, and 135 species of birds) have larger brains relative to their polygamous relatives (Dunbar & Shultz, 2007). The importance of social tolerance for group life and fitness benefit is echoed in an article on cooperation amongst apes (Miller, 2007). Miller reports on experiments with chimps and bonobos living in ape sanctuaries that demonstrate the importance of social tolerance for successful cooperation in order to obtain food. Bonobos, considered to be the most socially tolerant of the great apes, performed better in cooperation tasks than chimps, giving additional support to the argument. John Hare, who has been performing these observation experiments has hypothesized that cooperation may be an essential prerequisite for the subsequent development of sophisticated social behavior (Miller, 2007).

The belief that there exists a “social brain,” mechanisms dedicated to processing social information (social cognition), not only finds theoretical support, but is also demonstrated with empirical evidence. There is evidence that some sensory systems have evolved for predominately social purposes; such is the case with pheromone sensing, which is used for intraspecies communication (Insel & Dernald, 2004). It appears that higher eukaryotes have developed two distinct olfactory systems: the main olfactory system for detection of volatile oderants, and an accessory olfactory system specifically for species-specific pheromones. This is demonstrated in mice, in which specific neurons have been observed to selectively fire in response to conspecific pheromones (Insel & Dernald, 2004). The medial frontal cortex (MFC) has also been suggested to play a special role in social cognition, whereby it guides behavior based on anticipated value within a social context (Amodio & Frith, 2006). The MFC has been implicated in social cognition, such as self-knowledge, perception and judgments of other people, and mentalizing, by various fMRI studies (cited in Amodio & Frith, 2006). Using rodent models, Young observed that the amygdala differentially processes social and nonsocial stimuli (Young, 2001). Additionally, several fMRI studies and lesion studies have implicated the amygdala in social cognition (Insel & Dernald, 2004). Finally, mirror neurons may also be a neural structure specialized for social cognition, but will be discussed later (Gallese, 2003). These results represent only a few of what has emerged from studies of social cognition, and are consistent with the concept of a “social brain.”

Social Cognition and a Sense of Intersubjectivity: Imitation and Theory of Mind

Before sophisticated social behavior can develop (such as empathy and theory of mind), an individual must first have a sense of intersubjectivity (the ‘like me’ analogy). How this sense of intersubjectivity arises, and the subsequent development and expansion of one’s conception of the subjective nature of others has been a major topic of theoretical and empirical research. Some researchers argue that imitation, an innate human mechanism, could serve as the foundation for the ‘like me’ analogy of interpersonal relations, which is essential for sophisticated social processes (e.g. empathy, theory of mind) (Meltzoff & Decety, 2003; Gallese, 2003). It will be interesting to see whether or not this claim finds strong support in the future, but even if it doesn't, it still appears that both imitation and theory of mind are important processes tied to the self-other intersubjective space. Consequently, they have been and will continue to be the subject of many studies within the field of social neuroscience.

Imitation refers to a process whereby a subject translates an observed action into a pattern of neural activity that will produce an equivalent action. How this occurs is a subject of debate, and two predominant classes of theoretical explanations have emerged: generalist theories and specialist theories (Brass & Heyes, 2005). Specialist theories argue that imitation is controlled by dedicated mechanisms, while generalist theories argue the capacity for imitation is developed through integration of associative learning and general action control processes (Brass & Heyes, 2005). Without going into the specifics that distinguish theories, the prevailing proposed mechanism for the generation of imitative behavior involves activation of internal motor patterns: representations (Brass & Heyes, 2005), supramodel representations (Meltzoff & Decety, 2003), and embodied simulations (Gallese, 2003). The various theories differ largely in how they define the structural and compositional nature of these representations, but the general view is that these internal representations combine sensory information from observed actions with somatosensory information (including proprioception) from performed actions, and are stored in the brain. Upon observance of actions, these internal representations become activated and can be subsequently used to guide imitative behavior.

A strong body of fMRI studies has shown that passive action observation induces neural activation in regions that are known to be involved in action execution (Brass & Heyes, 2005). Thus theories of imitation find support in the foundational assumption that the observation of actions activates internal representations of equivalent actions, as studies have shown that action observation alone leads to motor activation. Additionally, in the early 1990’s, Vittorio Gallese and colleagues discovered what they have termed “mirror neurons.” These neurons were observed to activate in monkeys during action production and during action observation (Gallese, 2003). Gallese believes that mirror neurons could be crucial structures in the process of embodied simulation, as a mirror-matching neural system would allow for observed and performed actions to share a common neural format (Gallese, 2003). Prominent imitation theorists agree that mirror neurons could function in the generation of imitative behavior, but they stipulate that this role is developed in ontogeny rather than being the innate, evolutionary functional purpose of mirror neurons (Metlzoff & Decety, 2003, Brass & Heyes, 2005).

Gallese argues that embodied simulation could be the functional mechanism underlying the development of an individual’s sense of intersubjectivity. According to Gallese, embodied simulation via activation of mirror-matching systems occurs continuously, automatically, and unconsciously, giving rise to this sense of existing in a self-other space (Gallese, 2003). Gallese then goes further to suggest that the establishment of the ‘like me’ analogy of intersubjective space serves as the cognitive development of more sophisticated social relationships such as empathy and theory of mind (Gallese, 2003). Similarly, Meltzoff and Moore postulate that imitation both evolutionarily and developmentally precedes theory of mind (ToM) and further, that ToM develops from the neural machinery underlying imitation (Meltzoff & Decety, 2003). Here, theory of mind, an important social cognitive process, should be examined.

Theory of Mind (ToM) refers to the cognitive ability to attribute states of mind such as desire, intention, feelings and emotion to other people (and to oneself) as a means for predicting their behavior understanding that people act in accordance with their mental states (Gallese, 2003; Apperly, 2007). As ToM involves the recognition that others have mental states and perceptions that are distinct and independent of one’s own, of which one cannot have any direct knowledge, one can only have a “theory” of the other’s mind. The cognitive ability to recognize that other agents are acting upon subjective mental states, and to be able to predict their actions by theorizing as to the nature of those mental states, is a valuable tool for survival in a social environment. Not only does ToM grant a subject insight into the intentions of other agents, but it also allows for the manipulation of other’s and their behavior (Gallese, 2003).

From inquiry into the nature of ToM, two major theoretical mechanisms have been proposed: Simulation Theory (ST) and Theory Theory (TT) (Vogeley et al., 2001). However, as of yet, no empirical results exist which offer overwhelming discriminatory support for one theory over the other, and some researchers are pushing for a compromise between the two (Apperly, 2007). According to ST, the capacity for ToM is based in one’s ability to take on another’s perspective via simulation, the cognitive act of placing oneself in another’s mental “shoes” (Vogeley et al., 2001; Gallese, 2003). For Gallese, such simulation is embodied, as described above. Similarly, Vogeley et al. argue that in the process of simulation, the same cognitive mechanisms used for one’s own motivations, emotions, and rationality are employed to imagine the motivations and emotions of the Other (Vogeley et al., 2001). Thus in ST, one not only takes the perspective of the Other, but also projects one’s own subjectivity onto the Other.

TT proposes that one’s ability to understand and predict the behavior of others is dependent on the employment of a social knowledge base, often called folk psychology, to infer the mental states of others (Stich & Nichols, 1993; Gallese, 2003; Apperly, 2007). “Folk psychology” refers to a theoretical framework about the social world (Stich & Nichols, 1993). It is a body of theories or principles, constructed automatically and unconsciously throughout one’s ontogenic development; one continually creates, tests, and revises theories about the social world (Gopnik & Meltzoff, 1997 via Gallese, 2003). Thus, one’s social understanding of another is accomplished entirely and solely through mental meta-representations, contrary to the notion of embodied simulation inherent to ST (Gallese, 2003).

The Social Environment and Behavior Can Change the Brain

In addition to understanding how the brain and cognition shape one’s behavior, it is equally pressing to recognize that one’s social environment and interactions (behavior) can shape the brain. An important contribution towards this understanding has come from studies investigating mechanisms of learning. Such studies have lead to demonstrations of neuroplasticity in the brain; observations of physical changes in brain structure as a function of experience. An example of such neuroplasticity is the process of long-term potentiation, which refers to the induction of dendritic spinal growth as one learns, thereby facilitating synaptic transmission, and it is hypothesized that these physical changes in neural synapses are the basis of memory storage (Carlson, 2007). As brain structure directly influences perception and behavior, it intuitively follows that physical changes in the brain, such as long-term potentiation, would influence and alter future perceptions and the behaviors that accompany those perceptions.

A valuable model organism for examining how interactions and the social environment can manifest physical changes in the brain (of adult animals) has been the highly social African cichid fish (Insel & Dernald, 2004). Male cichid fish can exhibit two phenotypes, either of which can be adopted and reversed throughout the fish’s life. Territorial males (T) express both larger gonads and a larger body of neurons containing gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH), which is the chief signaling peptide for regulation of reproductive maturity, relative to nonterritoreal males (NT). The GnRH containing neuron body is 8x larger in T fish relative to NT fish (Insel & Dernald, 2004). It has been demonstrated, first, that juvenile males raised in the absence of adults exhibit greater gonadal development and larger GnRH expressing neurons than males raised in the presence of adults. This effect is solely dependent on the social environment of the juvenile fish. Additionally, it has been observed that changes in social status, such as a T fish losing its territory and status, alters the brain structures that regulate reproduction. A T fish that loses its status will physiologically transform into a NT fish; GnRH cell sizes will decrease along with gonads to NT proportions, and the opposite effect is seen when an NT fish assumes a dominant position (Insel & Dernald, 2004).

The Non-Rational Side of Social Cognition

As both intuition and evidence suggests, social cognition is far from being a purely rational and conscious process. Social behavior and cognition is largely derived from implicit, non-conscious activity. The information presented thus far has already offered several examples of how social cognition and behavior is largely influenced by unconscious activity. For example, pheromone detection has implications for social behavior, yet operates via a distinct olfactory system, separate from the primary olfactory system to which we have conscious access. Additionally, Gallese proposes that embodied simulation occurs continuously, automatically, and unconsciously (Gallese, 2003). Thus according to Gallese’s theory, the very foundation of social behavior (a sense of intersubjectivity) is derived from continuous processes that are separated from consciousness. Imitation, a powerful learning mechanism for development within a social environment, is observed in newborn infants as early as 18 hours after birth (Gallese, 2003; Meltzoff & Decety, 2003). In this sense, humans are capable of entering into some degree of self-other relationship despite a complete lack of self-consciousness (Gallese, 2003). Folk psychology, which is constructed continuously and unconsciously with experience, qualifies another social cognitive process that is largely unconscious in nature (Stich & Nichols, 1993). Even if folk psychology is not as central in shaping theory of mind as theory-theory would suggest, it remains highly probable that it plays a role in shaping how people understand and characterize their social environment.

In addition to those processes aforementioned, Jonathan Haidt, Malcolm Gladwell, and Antonio Demasio offer valuable insight into the non-“rational” or non-conscious aspect of (social) cognition. Jonathan Haidt introduces the Social Intuitionist Model of moral reasoning, according to which moral judgments stem from quick, unconscious intuitions rather than from a reasoning process (Haidt, 2001). As Haidt observes, moral judgments appear in consciousness suddenly and effortlessly, which opposes the characteristics of rational deliberation, an intentional and conscious effort. In Blink, Malcolm Gladwell introduces the adaptive unconscious as a powerful and influential cognitive device. According to Gladwell, an unconscious process termed “thin-slicing” operates on small blocks of information to derive sophisticated judgments more rapidly and efficiently than conscious deliberation would allow (Gladwell, 2007). Finally, in Descartes’ Error, Demasio discusses the critical role that emotions (typically understood as irrational hindrances to the decision-making process) play in “rational” deliberation and social behavior. Similar to Gladwell, Demasio suggests that non-conscious mechanisms, the Somatic-Marker Hypothesis, allow for more efficient deliberation (Demasio, 1994).

Jonathan Haidt argues that while rationalist models have dominated the research on moral judgment, there is strong evidence to suggest that moral reasoning is not causative of moral judgment. Haidt gives four reasons to doubt that causal role of reasoning in moral judgment. First, it is commonly believed that when people solve problems or make judgments, two processing systems are each at work, running in parallel, and which are capable of arriving at different conclusions (Haidt, 2001). These “dual processes” are the conscious (reasoning) and unconscious (intuition) systems, and Haidt argues that the reasoning process has been overemphasized. The emerging stance in social cognition is that most judgments are made automatically, therefore without intention or awareness of the process. Accordingly, Haidt argues that moral judgments likewise occur automatically. Examples of evidence for supporting this belief include findings that people categorize others automatically (e.g. stereotyping), a process which often includes moral traits, and that people form first impressions of others instantly from a small slice of behavior (see also Gladwell) which subsequently influence how one perceives the moral traits of those other people (Devine, 1989; Dion et al., 1971; via Haidt, 2001). These findings suggest that individuals form motal judgments of others instantly and automatically, without conscious deliberation and reasoning.

Haidt’s second reason for doubting a causal role of reasoning in forming moral judgments is the observation that reasoning is often motivated. That is, reasoning is often not “objective,” but rather influenced by various motives that bias what conclusions one derives through the reasoning process (Haidt, 2001). For example, it has been observed that subjects with strong opinions about capital punishment, when offered research that both supports and challenges the use of the death penalty, would uncritically accept evidence that agreed with their prior beliefs, while being much more critical of opposing evidence (Lord et al., 1979; via Haidt, 2001). It appears that reasoning is implemented to defend prior moral beliefs, from which stems Haidt’s third point, that reasoning produces post-hoc justifications of pre-established intuitive judgments, giving the allusion of objectivity. That is, the reasoning process does not give rise to one’s moral judgments, but rather is employed afterwards, when one needs to defend or explain the moral judgments that he or she formed automatically and unconsciously. Due to the consequent agreement between one’s judgment and the reasoning process, one is led to believe that the reasoning process objectively gave rise to the judgment (Haidt, 2001).

The fourth reason Haidt offers is that moral action is more tightly correlated to moral emotion than it is to moral reasoning (Haidt, 2001). For support, Haidt cites psychopathology. According to Cleckley’s case studies of psychopaths, psychopaths appear to lack affective reactions (lack moral emotions), such as those triggered by the suffering of another, while they retain rationality, intelligence, and knowledge of the rules of social behavior (Cleckey, 1955; via Haidt, 2001). Haidt also cites Demasio, who observed that patients with damage to the ventro-medial pre-frontal cortex have no loss of reasoning abilities and retain full knowledge of moral and social conventions, but they show poor judgment, an inability to reach decisions, and irrational behavior. The chief result of damage to this brain region is loss of emotional responsiveness, and it is this loss of emotions that Demasio attributes to the resulting irrational behavior, poor judgment, and indecisiveness of these patients (Demasio, 1994; Haidt, 2001).

With the above four conditions in mind, Haidt suggests that moral judgments are not the result of a reasoning process, but rather emerge from an unconscious process whereby intuitions, gut feelings, act rapidly and automatically to shape judgments (Haidt, 2001). What is important about Haidt’s proposal is that it may be extendable to social cognition at large. That is, in addition to moral judgments, perhaps a large body of social cognition function via automatic processes, to which the brain has no conscious access, and consequently rational processes are employed ex-post facto in an attempt to explain how the conclusions of social cognition were reached. This extension seems probable, as most cognition occurs automatically and unconsciously (Bargh & Chartrand, 1999; via Haidt, 2001). This unconscious aspect of social cognition is further supported in the texts of Gladwell and Demasio.

In Blink, Gladwell points out that humans employ two cognitive strategies to process information: a conscious strategy and an unconscious strategy (the adaptive unconscious). Similar to Haidt, Gladwell sets out to shift the popular emphasis on rational conscious deliberation to the important role of non-conscious processes in cognition. Specifically, Gladwell describes the unconscious process of “thin slicing,” whereby one rapidly derives sophisticated judgments and conclusions by extracting patterns from situations and behaviors using small pieces of information (Gladwell, 2007). Gladwell cites several studies that demonstrate the effectiveness of this process, and how this pattern recognition occurs before it enters a subject’s conscious awareness. For example, in one study gamblers were asked to choose a card from one of two decks, which in turn would yield a financial benefit or cost. What the subjects didn’t know is that the decks were rigged in such a way that one would yield a greater overall benefit than the other. It was then observed that subjects would begin to favor the more beneficial deck far earlier than the point at which they were able to consciously recognize either the fact that they were favoring on deck over the other or the reason for their favoring. The subjects were able to select the better deck without becoming consciously aware of the alteration in their actions because the non-conscious process of this slicing initiated the change in behavior (Gladwell, 2007).

Thin slicing applies directly to social cognition both in the formation of first impressions and in the act of mind reading (interring the intentions of others). With first impressions, thin slicing non-consciously and automatically extracts patterns about an individual. However, this process is subject to error. For example, prejudices can manifest in these unconscious judgments and skew one’s impressions. When one’s experiences, which include watching the news or hearing the opinions of others, create a pattern of association between black people and violence or Muslims and terrorism, how one thin slices when forming a first impression of a black person or a Muslim. Even if one consciously describes him or herself as non-prejudiced, one’s non-conscious processes could very likely show prejudice. For example, Gladwell cites a study that uses reaction times to compare how quickly one can categorize and therefore how strongly one associates categories (the faster on can categorize, the stronger the association and vice versa). Such studies have shown that most Americans are significantly slower when asked to quickly place a black man’s face under a positive category than when asked to place a white man’s face under a positive category, and the reverse for negative categories (Gladwell, 2007). Thus one’s unconscious processes can profoundly influence one’s cognition in ways that may disagree with one’s conscious attitudes. It is important to recognize just how profoundly unconscious mechanisms influence cognitive processes, and that cognition is therefore highly susceptible to outside influence despite what one rationally and consciously believes.

Finally, in Descartes’ Error, Demasio offers a comprehensive discussion of the important role emotions play in “rational” thought/deliberation. Central to this discussion is Demasio’s presentation of the somatic-marker hypothesis, which goes against what Demasio calls the “high-reason” view, the belief that formal and rational logic offers the best solution to problems. The somatic-marker hypothesis essentially posits that experience creates associations between categories of experience and affective valence; what one feels (body states) during experiences is juxtaposed to the collection of images (the experience) that caused those feelings. These affective components are employed through the somato-sensory mechanisms of the brain and are stored as dispositional representations that can become reactivated when given the proper trigger such as a similar experience. Demasio argues that during deliberation, these dispositional representations are triggered rapidly and unconsciously to narrow down response selections by ruling out those options that are associated with negative body states (Demasio, 1994). Thus Demasio suggests in a manner similar to Haidt and Gladwell, that unconscious processes operate quickly and automatically, profoundly influencing cognition. Social cognition does not escape the influence of these non-conscious mechanisms and this is important to recognize.

Discussion

Research concerned with elucidating the nature of social interactions has made considerable contributions to our understanding of both the self in relation to social organization (society) and society in relation to the self. In so doing, the research points towards two fundamental principles. First, social cognition and the social environment are mutually affective; social cognition shapes one’s social behavior, which in turn shapes society—an emergent property of social actions/interactions—and the social environment shapes one’s social cognition). Put differently, both bottom-up (data-driven; social environment → social mind) and top-down processes (perception of social environment → social behavior and therefore environment; theory driven) shape the ultimate picture of social interactions from the dyadic level to the societal level. Second, social cognition is equally [if not predominantly] unconscious as it is conscious and rational. It is important to recognize these two principles if research is to progress towards a more comprehensive understanding of the human social condition. Through attempting to control for these complexities inherent to the social condition, many studies concerned with deriving a better understanding of sociality run the risk of arriving at skewed and inaccurate results. Research that focuses too narrowly on social cognition at the individual level within a controlled environment becomes remarkably asocial, while research that neglects to acknowledge the unconscious and non-rational processes involved in social cognition will poorly reflect real world social situations.

Recognizing these two fundamental issues poses important implications for the field of social neuroscience as to its methodology and how results are interpreted. Insel & Dernald acknowledge the important interconnected relationship between environment and behavior, and accordingly they express concerns as to the importance of applying this knowledge to methodology (Insel & Dernald, 2004). For example, they stress the importance of using realistic social situations that reflect how animals would normally interact in the natural environment. Laboratory conditions that pose foreign environments and ethologically irrelevant contexts to animals will likely induce increased stress in these animals, thereby altering both their physiology (e.g. endocrinological changes) and behavior. Consequently, the observed behaviors may not be accurately representative of normal social behavior. Additionally, the living conditions of laboratory animals pose potential distortion to behavior, as evidence shows that the housing environment has profound effects on rodent brain structures (Insel & Dernald, 2004). While these represent only a portion of the concerns facing research within the field of social neuroscience, they point to the importance of approaching an understanding of the social condition through inquiry into both how the brain shapes social behavior and how social behavior shapes the brain, in a continuous mutually-affective fashion.

These two concerns not only pose implications for the field of social neuroscience, but also for how social systems are understood generally. While fields such as sociology and psychology have addressed ways in which the social environment can influence an individual’s cognition, social neuroscience has extended this connection to show that the social brain, behavior, and environment are even more interconnected in complex ways. The environment influences cognition, but cognition (both conscious and unconscious) determines how the environment is perceived, including one’s perception of self in relation to the environment. The perception of the environment in turn shapes behavior, and behavior shapes the environment. It is therefore the goal of social neuroscience to elucidate the nature of this complex of web of factors. If a comprehensive understanding of social cognition, behavior, interactions, and organization is to be obtained, it will be important to address this complex interconnectivity of brain, behavior, and environment, with a recognition of the vital role played by unconscious cognitive processes.

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