Social Cognition and The Bipartite Brain

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Social Cognition and The Bipartite Brain



Abstract: The following is a review of some of the contributions offered by social cognitive neuroscience research towards understanding the nature of human sociality. Specifically, this paper considers these contributions in terms of what roles conscious (the Story Teller) and unconscious (tacit) processes play in shaping social cognition. What emerges is a story about the bipartite brain and its ability to create multiple interpretations of the social world on at least two levels of cognition. These two levels of interpretation not only contribute unique benefits to social cognition, but also influencing one another, which allows for the generation of new and perhaps better ways to interpret the social environment.


I. Introduction

A. The Task of Describing Human Sociality

Inquiring into the nature of human social interactions, organization, and cognition has largely been the task of the humanities, or what have been traditionally labeled as the “social sciences.” Fields such as sociology, anthropology, psychology, and philosophy have thus far made valuable contributions towards current descriptions of sociality. However, the humanities need not be the sole inquirers into this realm, as the field of cognitive neuroscience may offer a chance to bridge the gap between the “social” and “hard” sciences the process of describing human sociality. It seems worthwhile to consider what new and valuable contributions cognitive neuroscience can make toward current and future understandings of social nature.

In describing the nature of sociality, an important characterization to bear in mind is the delineation between conscious and unconscious processes. Consciousness is largely assumed to play a predominant role in cognition at large, and in sociality specifically, as its processes allow one to reflect on who he/she is and his/her relation to others, to judge social partners, and to be generally aware of the social environment. However, of equal importance in social cognition are the contributions of processes that work outside of conscious awareness. The social environment is largely indeterminate and contains a complex degree of variables, requiring efficient information processing and decision-making for which rapid unconscious processes are most fit (Damasio, 1994; Adolphs, 1999; Gladwell, 2007; Sanfey, 2007; Dijksterhuis via Douglas, 2007). Consequently, descriptions of social cognition should acknowledge the presence of both conscious and unconscious systems, which together constitute the bipartite brain. However, it is not here suggested that cognitive functions should only be described as either conscious or unconscious. Rather, it is suggested that one recognize the presence and operative values of both processes, and consider how cognition emerges as a function of their influences and interplay.

The following is an attempt to describe the contributions offered by cognitive neuroscience towards understanding human sociality with an appreciation of bipartite construction of the brain. From there it will be worth considering what value is awarded through this description and consider what new questions arise.

B. Starting Presumptions

One important presumption of paper is that human cognition should not be characterized in terms of hierarchical, feed-forward paths stemming from discrete brain centers which control specific aspects of behavior (Adolphs, 2003). That is, cognitive neuroscience research is not concerned with locating specific regions of the brain that share specific characteristics of the brain as a whole (e.g. the love region of the brain). Diverging from a phrenological and reductionist approach, observations from cognitive neuroscience suggest that cognition is born from widespread distributed neural networks, which interact bi-directionally at varying levels (Waldrop, 1993; Goleman, 2006, Lamme, 2006; Grobstein, 2007a). While observations of specific brain regions are valuable for understanding the brain, it is just as important if not more so to consider how these regions interact and work in parallel to produce (social) cognition.

A second presumption is that a valuable description of human sociality is not reducible to characterizations of brain function and organization. While the brain likely serves as the ultimate source of behavior, it is important to recognize that the (social) environment is capable of influencing both the brain and behavior both through physically altering the brain via neuroplasticity (Insel & Dernald, 2004; Lamme, 2006; Carlson, 2007) and through implicit biasing (Haidt, 2001; Grobstein, 2003; Maiai & Cleeremans, 2005; Goleman, 2006; Gawronski et al., 2006; Lamme, 2006). In light of this, it will likely prove valuable to consider social cognition in terms of interactions between the brain and the social environment rather than as the product of a single social brain, as the latter view becomes markedly asocial.

A third presumption of this paper is that both conscious and unconscious mechanisms are fundamentally products of the material brain, and that together these mechanisms ultimately shape cognition and behavior. This presumption is two fold. First, it is here argued that conscious and unconscious processes stem from material/biological processes. Neither consciousness nor unconscious mechanisms are here believed to be the result of an indescribable or immaterial entity such as a soul. Second, these two biological pathways constitute the sole means by which agents are capable of conceptualizing and interacting with the world. Making this presumption not only rules out metaphysical debate, but also suggests that sociality is amenable to biological description.

C. The Bipartite Brain

In his approach to psychoanalysis, Freud popularized the notion of a subconscious mind which was capable of influencing behavior. While much of the Freudian school of thought has been put aside in modern times, the idea of a subconscious mind has persisted, undergoing various reinterpretations and applications, giving rise to notions such as the cognitive unconscious, implicit thought (Douglas, 2007), pre-conscious (Douglas, 2007), implicit cognition (Greenwald & Benaji, 1995; Gawronski et al., 2006) and intuitions (Haidt, 2001) that remain common to studies of the mind. It is therefore generally accepted that there exist cognitive processes that operate outside of awareness, which influence and bias behavior. Further, observations suggest that these unconscious processes may predominate cognitive activity in general (Bargh & Chartrand via Haidt, 2001). These nonconscious processes are often characterized in terms of feeling effortless, occurring automatically and rapidly, requiring neither intention nor attention, and being distinct from rationality. On the other end of the spectrum, conscious processes are most often associated with awareness, attention, rational deliberation, working memory, executive functioning, intentionality, reflective or introspective thought (self as the object of contemplation), and are characteristically effortful and slow.

While the general qualitative differences between conscious and unconscious processes have been described, further clarification is required. Despite these general classifications, there exists no universally agreed upon definition of either “conscious” or “unconscious” processes. For instance, while neurological studies have typically relied on a classification of conscious processes in terms of reportability (Lieberman, 2005; Lamme, 2006; Gawronski et al., 2006), some researchers argue that “awareness” does not necessitate linguistic reportability (Lamme, 2006). For example, observations of split-brain patients or patients with blind sight, who are able to draw, select, point to etc. objects which they claim not to be able to see (Lamme, 2006) suggest that these patients are in some sense aware of the objects without being able to report their awareness. Further complicating the issue is the current lack of any fundamental way to empirically distinguish between conscious and unconscious processes (Douglas, 2007). Finally, perhaps cognition should not be merely divided into two categories, as there likely exist various layers of consciousness including concepts such as phenomenal consciousness or pre-reflective/linguistic self-consciousness (Gallagher & Zahavi, 2006), source awareness, content awareness, and impact awareness (Gawronski et al., 2006).

Since there are various ways one can interpret these cognitive mechanisms, and which interpretation of these processes that one adopts influences the methodology and interpretation of research (Lamme, 2006; Gawronski et al., 2006), it would behoove this paper to state which definitions are being adopted. For present purposes, it seems Paul Grobstein’s delineation between these processes is of particular usefulness, describing those mechanisms whose processing is not made available to internal observation as “tacit” and processes that constitute observable internal experiences (e.g. the picture in the head of the external world; mental images organized into a thought process) as the “Story Teller” (Grobstein, 2003; Stiles & Grobstein, 2005). Such a description thereby implies the importance of language and reportability for “consciousness.”

Generally put in Grobstein’s terms, the Story Teller is related to the “picture in the head” (2003), which constitutes one’s experience of the world. According to Grobstien, the picture in the head is the result of neural processes by which the Story Teller creates a coherent story/interpretation from the cacophony of inputs received from prior cognitive functions. These prior functions are predominantly tacit, continually and automatically processing signals received via sensory systems from the external world (senses) and from the body proper (proprioception) while also internally generating signals (e.g. the work of central pattern generators). This widespread pattern of neural activity creates a large body of outputs, which are sent to further widespread areas in the brain including the neocortex. Those neural signals which do reach the neocortex are subsequently interpreted in such a way that one ultimately receives a coherent and simplified story/picture of one’s experiences, as well as one’s definition of self (the “I-function”) (Grobstein, 2005). In keeping with Grobstein’s description of the bipartite brain, this paper will borrow the term “tacit” to refer to those unconscious signals that precede the picture in the head, while also borrowing the term “Story Teller” to refer to one’s conscious experience (the picture in the head) that stems from the outputs of tacit processes.

II. Social Neuroscience

A. Describing the Field

Social Neuroscience, a branch of cognitive neuroscience, is a field occupied with the task of identifying the neural processes underlying social cognition and behavior. This is not, however, solely a task of discerning how brain functions influence social behavior, but also understanding how social behavior (the social environment) influences the brain; it is an inquiry into the relationship between social cognition (the brain) and human sociality. Social cognition itself can be described as the sum of those processes that allow conspecifics to interact, and is thus largely concerned with mediating the exchange of signals, defining the self, understanding the mind of others, and making decisions or judgments within the social environment (Lieberman, 2005; Frith & Frith, 2007). Accordingly, social neuroscience research has inquired into the neural nature of these processes.

While the Story Teller is important for social cognition, many of the signals relevant to social cognition are processed automatically and tacitly, thereby allowing for more efficient interactions and decision-making (Damasio, 1994; Sanfey, 2007, Frith & Frith, 2007). The subsequent sections of this paper makes an attempt to describe key areas of study within the field of social neuroscience such as theory of mind, judgment and decision-making, empathy, morality, and the “social brain”, while considering the roles of tacit processes and the Story Teller. As will be discussed, it appears that automatic tacit processes are central to social cognition, however, it is of additional importance to describe what further benefits are offered by the Story Teller as well as how the outputs of tacit and Story Teller processes interact to ultimately yield cognition and behavior.

B. Social Neuroscience Research Re-Viewed With The Tacit/Story Teller Lens

1. Jonathan Haidt’s Social Intuitionist Model

Perhaps some of the most thought-provoking research to have emerged is that of Jonathan Haidt and colleagues. Haidt has largely focused on studying how humans form moral judgments, and his observations have motivated him to formulate what he calls the “Social Intuitionist Model of Moral Judgment.” Most often moral judgments are thought to stem from a process of rational debate (reasoning), thereby relying on the Story Teller and its capacity to integrate calculations of pros and cons with one’s awareness of social values. However, Haidt takes a more radical stance on moral judgment, citing the prevalence of automaticity in cognition. Automaticity refers to the manner in which many facets of cognition, including judgment, occur automatically and prior to intent or Story Teller involvement (Green & Haidt, 2002). Haidt argues that this can extend to include moral judgments, contrary to the folk belief that morality falls into the domain of conscious rationality.

Haidt offers four principle observations to cast doubt on the causal role of reason in the formation of moral judgments. First, he points out that the brain operates largely on dual processing systems (both tacit and Story Teller processes), which are capable of arriving at different conclusions (Haidt, 2001). Haidt argues that reasoning has been overemphasized in the study of human morality and that automatic tacit processes such as affective responses have been understated while likely playing a larger role. Observations of “moral dumbfounding” offer support for Haidt’s claim against reasoning in the realm of moral judgment.

The moral dumbfounding effect is observed when subjects are asked to explain their reasoning behind a moral judgment made in response to a moral dilemma. When presented with a dilemma, subjects are typically quick to make a judgment as to whether a course of action is wrong or right, however, when asked to explain why they arrived at this decision, subjects are slow to state reasons, while the given reasons themselves were often ill-found in relation to the dilemma, pointing to the fallibility of rational reasoning. For example, in a dilemma asking if it would be wrong for a brother and sister to have consensual sex, using prophylactics so as to prevent possible genetic harm to a child, while keeping their act a secret thus not imposing upon others, most people are quick to condemn the act. Subjects often cite the potential for genetic consequences or emotional trauma, however the question is crafted so as to rule out these possibilities. When confronted with this rational counterargument to their stated reasoning, subjects are apt to argue that the act is still inherently wrong while unable to explain why (Haidt, 2001). Such cases suggest that reasoning is disconnected from one’s moral judgments.

Secondly, observations suggest that reasoning is often motivated (Haidt, 2001; Lieberman 2005) and especially so when reasoning involves one’s moral commitments (Kuhn, 1989 and Lord, Rodd, & Lepper, 1979 via Haidt, 2001). That is, reasoning is not an objective process, but is instead influenced by motives that bias the reasoning employed so as to arrive at (tacitly) desired conclusions. Two forms of such motives are relatedness and coherence motives (Haidt, 2001). Relatedness motives refer to a desire to cohere to one’s social surroundings so as to promote social harmony, and these motives are capable of driving subjects to hold attitudes and beliefs that best serve them in their social setting. A relatedness motive may therefore bias a male to “rationally” conclude that it is morally wrong to watch pornography when he is with his girlfriend. However, when he is in a group of his guy friends, he may conclude that watching pornography is morally permissible. Coherence motives refer to a desire to minimize cognitive dissonance. That is, it has been observed that people will readily alter their attitudes and beliefs in order to prevent internal conflict between self-definitional attitudes (e.g. “I am not racist”) and attitudes realized in experience (e.g. assuming a black man to be poor). Importantly, these motives are generally capable of exerting their influence tacitly, and thereby outside of what is typically considered reasoning.

Observations of motivated reasoning lead Haidt to his the third reason for doubting the causal role of reason: reasoning is most often employed post-hoc, motivated in an attempt to justify and explain conclusions already reached via tacit processes. That is, one employs, reasoning after having already tacitly arrived at a conclusion, in a motivated attempt to explain how one reached those conclusions. Owing to observations of moral dumbfounding, it appears plausible to argue that the source of judgments is not available to Story Teller introspection. However, since motivated reasoning by nature often agrees with one’s judgments, and since one is unaware of the tacit processes that shaped one’s judgments, one is mislead into believing that objective reasoning was indeed the source of one’s judgments (Haidt, 2001). Finally, observations support a stronger correlation between moral judgment and moral emotion (affective responses) than with moral reasoning, and further, observations suggest that attitudes available to the Story Teller (e.g. moral reasoning) are not tightly correlated to ones’ actual behavior (Lieberman, 2005), thereby offering further support for arguing that tacit responses play a larger role in moral judgment than Story Teller reasoning.

With these observations in mind, Haidt argues that moral judgments are predominantly driven by affective responses (intuitions, “gut feelings”) that occur quickly, automatically, and pervasively, without Story Teller deliberation, while moral reasoning is more often employed when needed as a slow and motivated process that attempts to explain and support those judgments that one has already reached (Haidt, 2001). However, this model is not meant to dismiss rationality or reasoning (Story Teller processes), but rather to argue that reasoning has a limited role in moral judgment, rarely having a direct effect on judgment.

It should be briefly discussed what roles Haidt does attribute to reasoning for influencing judgment. The social intuitionist model posits that moral reasoning (stemming from tacit intuitions) is capable of affecting other people when spread by communication. Though it is important to note that such reasoning most effectively alters the moral judgments of others by triggering new affectively valenced intuitions in others, thereby not exerting a direct effect on judgment, as the process of social persuasion relies on tacit processes (Haidt, 2001). Thus while reasoning may not play a large role in shaping ones own moral judgments, it is capable of being employed by the Story Teller so as to alter the judgments of others. Despite the limited role reasoning is here suggested to play in the formation of judgments, it is still likely to have some direct influence on judgment at infrequent occasions. For example, when one has two contradicting intuitions and is unable to arrive at a moral judgment, reasoning may be employed by means of an internal dialogue in order to weigh the two stances against each other, ultimately but slowly arriving at a judgment.

What is even more thought provoking than Haidt’s proposal for the role of tacit processes in moral judgment is the possible extension to the social domain generally. That is, it is interesting to consider the possibility that tacit processes such as intuitions are the driving mechanism of social cognition and behavior, while Story Teller processes such as reasoning are employed in an attempt to make a coherent story (Grobstein, 2007a) from the outputs of tacit processes. Might such a description characterize social cognition? It will be worthwhile to examine additional observations and consider what further insight they may offer in relation to such a description of social cognition. Work cited by Antonio Damasio and Malcolm Gladwell may prove exceptionally useful for this task.

2. The Somatic Marker Hypothesis

Damasio has outlined what he terms the “Somatic-Maker Hypothesis,” arguing that emotions and feelings (like intuitions) play a crucial role in shaping rational deliberation and decision-making via tacit processes. According to Damasio, the human brain contains “convergence zones,” which are small populations of neurons that store potential patterns of neural activity termed “dispositional representations,” (Damasio, 1994). As one’s experience of the world consists largely of mental images, which correspond to specific topographically organized patterns of neural activity, one can store slices of experience (mental images) in convergence zones as dispositional representations. Likewise, one also experiences the world through affective body-states (the feeling of emotions), which are again a result of particular patterns of neural activity and can therefore be stored. Damasio argues that throughout one’s development, one creates associations between body-states and concurrent mental images (an image of the source of one’s experienced body-state), which are juxtaposed and stored as a specific kind of dispositional representation that Damasio calls “somatic markers” and it is by virtue of this process of juxtaposition that mental images (experiences) are assigned quality of good or bad (Damasio, 1994).

When activated, somatic markers trigger a pattern of activity that create momentary reconstructions of perceptual images in sensory cortices (the mental image and congruent affective state), thereby constituting “as if” body states (Damasio, 1994) or simulations of potential future events (Gilbert & Wilson, 2007). In other words, the stored patterns of neural activity allow one to quickly, and therefore tacitly, feel as if they were having an affective state associated with a particular stimulus without having to either experience the actual event or reenact the entire affective body state in the body proper. These somatic markers can be triggered by the observation of similar experiences, or the thought of associated mental images, however fleeting those images may be (Damasio, 1994). According to Damasio, these somatic markers are triggered during decision-making processes when one very briefly considers various response options. When activated, the somatic markers rapidly creates “as if” gut feelings about the response options, and those options that induce negative gut feelings are immediately ruled out of the decision-making process. Damasio is therefore arguing that tacitly produced affective feelings function to dramatically narrow the pool of possible responses, increasing the accuracy and efficiency of the decision-making process before Story Teller deliberation even takes place.

Damasio posits the somatic-marker hypothesis in the face of the “high-reason view,” according to which formal and objective rational logic is singularly capable of deriving the best possible solution to a problem, a stance which rules emotions out as subjective barriers to overcome in the decision-making process. Damasio argues that high reason is likely not the sole mechanism of decision-making for a few reasons (Damasio, 1994). First, he argues that humans lack the cognitive capacity for attention and working memory that would be demanded by such a cost-benefit analysis, which is a complex calculation working across variables such as categorical nature, time scale, and image type. Second, Damasio points out that even if such a cost-benefit were within one’s cognitive capacity, it would be a slow processes owing to the large degree of calculations to make. Finally, he explains that the social environment entails uncertainty and a great deal of complexity, and the decisions one makes within this environment poses both direct and indirect implications for one’s survival. Consequently, one would be best served to make decisions expeditiously while accounting for the numerous variables involved, which emotional biasing makes possible.

Damasio draws from clinical cases of brain damage in areas of the prefrontal cortex to support his claim. One example is of a patient by the name of Elliot who suffered damage to ventromedial prefrontal cortices as a result of a meningioma. Testing revealed no abnormalities in Elliot’s IQ, basic neurological functioning including working memory and attention, and a preservation of social knowledge (e.g. rules and conventions). However, Elliot did show some interesting changes in behavior. First, he appeared to express “emotional” and “psychological” adjustment problems, being described as a “dispassionate uninvolved spectator” (Damasio, 1994). Second, he showed a remarkable inability to make decisions, especially when those decisions concerned the personal and social domain. A task such as choosing what task to take on at work, while typically a relatively quick and easy decision for people to make, became a burden for Elliot, consuming a large amount of his time. Damasio claims that because Elliot was lacking the neural machinery crucial for narrowing down the possible decisions from which to choose, he was left with only rational deliberation, which could take hours before arriving at a conclusion.

The somatic marker hypothesis as presented by Damasio shares with Haidt’s social intuitionist model a general proposition that rapid tacit processes are crucial for decision-making/judgment within the social domain, and that these tacit processes precede those of the Story Teller. However, Damasio diverges from Haidt to argue that while tacit biasing is necessary for successful social judgments, they are not sufficient in themselves for such a task (Damasio, 1994). The somatic marker hypothesis therefore seems to give the Story Teller a more crucial role within the realm of social cognition. This will be further considered later on.

3. Thin Slicing

In Blink, Gladwell reviews numerous studies that point to the importance of rapid and tacit processes for cognition. Gladwell begins by asserting that humans employ two cognitive processes for information processing: a conscious strategy and an unconscious strategy (the adaptive unconscious). Similarly to Haidt, Gladwell sets out with the intention of shifting the emphasis on Story Teller processes to the role played by tacit ones in cognition. His principle focus is on the process of “thin slicing” whereby one tacitly and automatically derives sophisticated judgments and conclusions by extracting patterns from small bits of information gained through experience (behaviors and environmental situations).

Gladwell describes several observations of subjects who appear to recognize patterns and employ them to alter behavior before either those patterns or their influence on behavior are made available to Story Teller awareness. For example, in a study using the Iowa gambling task, subjects were asked to repeatedly choose a card from one of two possible decks, and it was observed that tacit processes influenced from which deck the subject would pick. The card chosen by the subject resulted in either a “financial” gain or loss depending on what the card turned out to be. The independent variable in this study was the manner in which the decks were constructed: one deck was designed to yield a greater net gain in profits than the other. The dependent variable, in turn, was the behavior (card choice) made by the subject. It was subsequently observed that subjects would start to selectively chose from the financially favorable deck before they were able explain why they were doing so. That is, the subjects appeared to “learn” which deck showed a pattern of greater net return before this pattern became available to their Story Teller. These observations suggest that people are able to arrive at sophisticated judgments through a tacit process of thin slicing.

Gladwell goes on to describe how thin slicing extends to the social (and moral) domain. Numerous observations suggest that people form “snap judgments” (rapid first impressions) about others, which is most likely the result of thin slicing. For example, there are observations that people are quick to judge the competence, warmth, and trustworthiness of others, given only 100 milliseconds to view someone’s face. Importantly, these judgments typically do not change when given longer time to study the other person’s face (Frith & Frith, 2007). Gladwell (2007) similarly cites that students judge a professor’s competence when given short clips of him/her while teaching, and that these judgments typically do not change given longer clips from which to cast judgment.

Snap judgments also relate to prejudice, which appears to be based in automatic/tacit mechanisms (Haidt, 2001; Gladwell, 2007; Frith & Frith, 2007). Gladwell describes a study in which subjects were asked to categorize pictures of people using terms such as “good,” “bad,” “evil,” “hurt,” and “wonderful.” Using reaction time as the dependent variable, experimenters observed that most American subjects, including many subjects who consciously considered themselves non-prejudiced, were significantly slower to place a black man’s face under a positive category than when asked to place a white man’s under the same category, and the reverse for negative categories (Gladwell, 2007). Reactions times were interpreted in terms of strength of association; the faster one can match a picture and word, the stronger his/her association between the two. These results suggest that prejudice manifests in the process of making snap judgments, and further, that the judgments quickly arrived at through tacit processes can be incongruent with those derived by the Story Teller.

Related to thin slicing is the phenomenon of priming, the alteration of one’s behavior through experimentally crafted suggestions that operate via tacit processes. Primed subjects typically alter their behavior and decisions in a manner consistent with the primed category, yet these subjects appear to have no Story Teller awareness of the priming effect, the source of their behavioral alterations (Lieberman, 2005; Gladwell, 2007). Gladwell cites one study in which subjects were asked to complete a task of unscrambling sentences. One group of subjects was given sentences designed to include words related to being rude such as “bother” and “disturb” while the other group was given sentences with words related to being polite (e.g. “patiently,” “considerate). The subjects were then asked to walk down the hall to speak with the experimenter about their next task, however, the experimenter was intentionally engaged in a conversation with someone else. It was observed that on average subjects primed with the rude category interrupted the conversation after 5-minutes. Contrarily, subjects primed with the polite category typically never interrupted throughout the 10-minute experimentation period.

Gladwell argues that during the priming experiments, the adaptive unconscious thin slices to derive common patterns, which can subsequently exert tacit influences on behavior so as to conform to the primed category (Gladwell, 2007). While one may be tempted to argue that priming is limited to experimental settings, Gladwell argues the priming effect is significant and occurs in natural settings. For example, there are observations of black students who performed worse when taking a portion of the GREs after being asked to identify their race in a pretest question than another group of black students (who performed 100% better) who did not have to identify their race. It is suggested that the group of students who performed worse had been primed by the negative stereotypes associated with the academic performance of black students, which consequently altered their performance. Importantly, observations of priming suggest that that the Story Teller is largely unaware of the tacit power of context over cognition and behavior, and that such tacit alteration of cognition occurs in the everyday world.

4. Further Areas That Highlight The Role of Tacit Processes

It seems that snap judgments can be extended to theory of mind, as people are capable of rapidly judging the intentions and mental states of others (Gallese, 2003; Gladwell, 2007). Theory of mind (ToM) refers to the cognitive ability to attribute mental states such as desire, intent and emotions to others, and to use those interpretations as a means for predicting behavior with an understanding that people act largely based on their mental states (Gallese, 2003; Apperly, 2007). While the psychological (and biological) mechanism of ToM remains a debate in cognitive research, it will be worthwhile to describe two of the predominant theories that have emerged: simulation-theory and theory-theory (Vogeley et al., 2001; Apperly, 2007).

Simulation-theory proposes that mental simulation of another’s cognitive perspective (stepping into their “mental shoes”) functions as the primary mechanism of ToM (Vogeley et al., 2001; Gallese, 2003). Gallese argues that embodied simulation based on a mirror matching neural system serves this purpose. Mirror neurons, which were discovered in the brains of rhesus macaque monkeys, were observed to selectively fire both while performing an action and in response to seeing another monkey produce the same action. Neural correlates of the mirror neurons discovered in macaque monkeys have been found in the human brain and several researchers including Gallese believe they could play an important role in translating between observed and performed actions by means of a common neural format (Gallese, 2003). In this fashion, mirror neurons could serve as the neural basis of embodied simulation, which Gallese argues occurs automatically, continuously, and tacitly. This view of tacit and rapid embodied stimulation fits with general accounts of the manner in which people are able to make snap judgments about the intentions of others.

Theory-theory diverges from mental simulation and instead posits that one employs a social knowledge base, often referred to as “folk knowledge,” to infer the mental states of others (Stich & Nichols, 1993; Gallese, 2003; Apperly, 2007). Folk knowledge refers to a body of theories and principles about the social world that one constructs automatically and tacitly throughout one’s development. One then tacitly employs these theories within corresponding social contexts in order to infer the mental states of others. While simulation-theory and theory-theory argue for different psychological mechanisms, common to the two is the belief that ToM is employed rapidly and tacitly, drawing from information (either mental simulations or folk knowledge) that was arrived at through tacit processes. While the outputs of tacit ToM processing can be made available for Story Teller interpretation, upon which one can make further judgments or base actions, it is important to recognize that this is only accomplished after the rapid functioning of tacit processes. That is, the majority of ToM judgments were not achieved through a Story Teller process of deliberation even though those judgments may be realized by the Story Teller.

Even before one develops sophisticated social cognitive processes such as theory of mind and empathy/morality, one must first recognize they he/she exists within a space occupied by others who themselves are subjects/agents. This awareness of existing within an intersubjective space is central to social cognition and has been characterized as beginning with the establishment of the “like me” analogy of interpersonal relations (Gallese, 2003; Meltzoff & Decety, 2003). While the process by which one’s understanding of subjectivity and inter-subjectivity emerges, as well as the point at which this occurs during one’s development, is unknown and subject to debate, some researchers propose that the neural mechanisms of motor imitation could serve as the foundation for the emergence of this understanding within one’s ontogenic development (Meltzoff & Decety, 2003; Gallese, 2003; Meltzoff, 2007).

Motor imitation entails the translation of an observed action into a pattern of neural activity that will produce an equivalent action. While several mechanisms have been proposed as the cognitive basis of imitation, a general theme to have emerged is that imitation is achieved through the activation of representations (Brass & Heyes, 2005), supramodel representations (Meltzoff & Decety, 2003), and embodied simulations (Gallese, 2003), which allow somatosensory information from performed actions (e.g. proprioception) to be compared with the sensory information about the target action. This ideas is similar to the concept of dispositional representations as presented by Damasio, in that two patterns of neural activity are being related and stored in the brain to be later activated when given the proper stimuli, which in this case would be the image of an action that one wants to imitate.

According to Meltzoff, supramodel representations offer the means by which one can recognize that others are like him/her. Such representations allow an infant to recognize that observed actions are similar to those actions performed by the self, thereby giving the infant a sense that others are somehow like him or her before the Story Teller has developed (Meltzoff & Decety, 2003; Meltzoff, 2007). Meltzoff’s argument for supramodel representations is largely drawn from observations of infant imitation. According to Meltzoff, internal mapping of visual and proprioceptive representations must be the basis of neonate imitation, as neonate infants are too young to have learned the imitative behaviors and they have no visual feedback on which to shape their own behavior. However, the existence of neonate imitation is subject to debate, and may not require the use of complex representations (Anisfeld, 1996).

While infant imitation may not draw on supramodel representations, there are observations to suggest that some type of tacit process (perhaps the work of a mirror matching system) is at work in early infancy, giving rise to a naïve, though functional, self-other understanding including a conception of others as “like me.” Meltzoff (2007) reports observations of infants who preferentially look at adults who imitate their actions and of infants who selectively gaze follow according to the use of a “like me” primitive theory of mind. For example, 14- and 18-month old infants would look at an adult’s visual target significantly more when the adult wore a headband versus when the adult wore a blindfold. However, 12-month-old infants in this study did not show any selectivity in gaze following. Despite the 12-month-olds’ inability to infer that the adult model would not be able to see anything while wearing a blindfold, after exposing 12-month-old infants to a first-hand experience of the effect of blindfolds, these infants exhibited the same selective gaze following (Meltzoff, 2007). Thus by understanding the effects of blindfolds as they pertain directly to the self, these infants were able to tacitly infer that these effects could be generalized to others. Observations such as these suggest that infants have some understanding that other humans experience the world in a common manner, and importantly, this understanding has developed before the Story Teller.

Similarly to Meltzoff, Gallese argues that embodied simulation allows for infant imitation, and is the neural mechanism through which one develops an understanding of intersubjectivity, from which social cognitive functions such as empathy and ToM arise (Gallese, 2003). As aforementioned, a mirror matching system could facilitate parsimonious translation between observed and performed actions, as mirror neurons would allow them to share a common neural format. Drawing from Meltzoff, Gallese proposes that imitation and the cognitive process of matching between the observed actions of others and the performed actions of the self would allow individuals to develop an understanding that others are subjects “like me,” (Gallese, 2003). Supporting Gallese’s hypothesis, a strong body of fMRI studies seem to show that passive observation of performed actions induces neural activity in regions previously associated with action execution and motor control (Brass & Heyes, 2005). These observations suggest that human observation of others’ actions automatically triggers the activation of a tacit internal representation of equivalent actions.

A final topic worth mentioning from social neuroscience research is the notion of a “social brain.” That is, many researchers have suggested that there are brain regions dedicated to the task of processing social information (Young, 2001; Gallese, 2003; Insel & Dernald, 2004; Amodio & Frith, 2006), and that the human brain has evolved specialized mechanisms in order to solve the cognitive demands of social life (Zhou et al., 2005; Silk, 2007; Dunbar & Shultz, 2007). There exist empirical observations to suggest that regions of the brain may be dedicated to processing social information. For example, it appears that many “higher,” or more complex, eukaryotes have evolved two distinct olfactory systems: a principal system for the detection of volatile odorants, and an accessory system for pheromone detection (Insel & Dernald, 2004). Pheromones are used for intra-species communication and elicit behavioral responses upon detection, however, such detection and influence on behavior occurs outside of Story Teller involvement. While the primary olfactory system makes information available to Story Teller interpretation (one knows when one is smelling a rose vs. fertilizer), one does not become aware of the accessory system’s operation (one’s Story Teller is not aware of either the detection of a pheromone or that that pheromone has altered his/her behavior). It therefore seems possible that there exist some mechanisms in the brain that have been specified for social cognitive purposes, and which can influence social behavior without the need for the Story Teller’s involvement.

5. Observations That Highlight The Importance of The Story Teller

The observations outlined thus far suggest that tacit processes are the basis of social cognition. The work performed by such systems allows agents to rapidly, automatically and effortlessly derive sophisticated judgments, make decisions, predict future events, and generate adaptive behavior. These processes are especially valuable in the social environment, which entails a high degree of uncertainty and a multitude of variables. It is then only the outputs of these computations that can become available to the Story Teller, which subsequently attempts to draft a coherent explanation (an interpretation; reasoning) for how those outputs arose (Haidt, 2001; Maia & Cleeremans, 2005; Grobstein, 2005; Grobstein, 2007a,b). As tacit processes appear to predominate social cognition, and owing to the fallibility of the Story Teller’s post-hoc interpretations, one may be led doubt the importance of the Story Teller function. However, despite these concerns, the Story Teller should not be dismissed as valueless.

A consideration of evolution and the social brain suggests that the Story Teller function may offer important adaptive benefits. The social brain hypothesis (SBH) posits that the evolution of larger brains in primates was driven by the cognitive demands of group living, thus suggesting that group size was limited by cognitive factors such as the amount of neural material available for processing social information and group dynamics (Zhou et al., 2005; Silk, 2007; Dunbar & Shultz, 2007). It follows that primate brains evolved, growing in size in areas such as the neocortex, to process the complexities of social input. Positive, qualitative correlations between relative neocortex size in primates and degrees of indices of social complexity such as social group size, frequencies of coalitions, prevalence of social play, grooming clique sizes, and the frequency of social learning lend support to the SBH (Silk, 2007; Dunbar & Shultz, 2007). As group life and the quality of social relationships pose potential fitness advantages to individuals (Silk, 2007), the SBH holds plausible ground.

The SBH has suggested that areas of the human brain, specifically the neocortex, have evolved for social cognitive purposes. What is interesting to consider is the related emergence of the Story Teller, as the Story Teller is associated with neural activity in the neocortex (Grobstein 2007a,b). It seems to follow that the origins of the Story Teller could lay in the evolution of a social brain; perhaps the Story Teller offers important mechanisms for complex social cognition for which tacit processes had alone proven insufficient. However, it is equally possible that the Story Teller was exapted for sophisticated social cognition. While this notion remains to be seriously addressed in research, the correlation of neocortex evolution, the Story Teller and sociality suggests this may be a worthwhile line of inquiry. Additionally, the related emergence of social brains and the Story Teller leave open the possibility that the Story Teller offers valuable contributions to (social) cognition, which tacit processes alone were unable to provide. The following will attempt to describe observations that appear to demonstrate such values of Story Telling processes.

As previously mentioned, the Story Teller is of value for deliberating between various judgments when one is faced with contradicting intuitions (Haidt, 2001). This is especially important for correcting initial social judgments, a controlled process requiring motivation (Lieberman, 2005). The Story Teller’s capacity for correcting social judgments is an important function for the process of social change, as social change requires that individuals come to terms with their own beliefs and change them accordingly. For instance, when one is faced with an intuition that prejudice is wrong as well as an intuition to cross the street when one sees a group of black men ahead, reasoning allows one to confront these conflicting intuitions and make a decision to alter one’s behavior. Thus the Story Teller plays an important role in allowing agents to redefine themselves and how they act (Grobstein, 2004). Haidt, proposes that this occurs relatively rarely, but it remains a valuable cognitive device, which may be employed more often than Haidt would suggest.

Just as the stories created by the Story Teller function are fallible, so too are the “stories,” or summaries of inputs, created by tacit processes fallible (Gilbert & Wilson, 2007). For example, intuitions may mislead one to believe that everyone is negatively judging one’s actions or plotting against him/her. Often it is not actually the case that everyone is plotting against someone, and the Story Teller offers an important means for improving such tacitly derived stories. As Regina Pally (2005 via Grobstein, 2005) describes, observations from psychotherapy demonstrate the manner in which the Story Teller can edit and correct the outputs of tacit processes. For example, in some cases of therapy, patients are encouraged to employ their Story Teller function so as to reconsider the assumptions arrived at via tacit processes from an alternative perspective. By critically examining one’s assumptions through an effortful attempt to consider alternative interpretations, one can learn to inhibit assumptions and recompose the stories outputted by tacit systems, thereby ultimately creating for oneself a new experience (the story/picture in the head) of the (social) world (Pally, 2005 via Grobstein, 2005).

In a related area, as Haidt mentions, the Story Teller is an important mechanism for social persuasion. Possession of the Story Teller allows subjects to formulate arguments that are meant to convince others to alter their (moral) judgments by means of affective persuasion, a task that requires intent on behalf of the persuader. This echoes the previous example of psychotherapy, in which a therapist is able to persuade his/her patient to consider alternative judgments. However, the example of therapy suggests that social persuasion is first, not limited to the moral domain, and second, not limited to persuasion through the tacit affective system. Observations from psychotherapy suggest that reasoned persuasion (from one Story Teller to another) can effectively alter one’s cognition, including the work of tacit processes. Such persuasion is not only useful for therapeutic applications, but also for recruiting others to adopt common judgments or for deceiving others into adopting false-beliefs, each of which offer potential fitness benefits in the social domain.

In light of these observations, it seems that the Story Teller offers valuable contributions for cognition through correcting the outputs of tacit processes by allowing one to conceive of and consider alternative possibilities; the Story Teller has the potential to alter tacit processes just as tacit processes alter the Story Teller. These two systems are thus mutually influential, and for this reason the social cognition should not be understood in terms of two independent systems, but as an emergent product of two interconnected systems. While social cognition appears to be predominated by the work of tacit systems, the top-down influence of the Story Teller shows that social cognition should be considered in terms of both tacit and Story Teller functions.

III. Discussion

A. The Foundation of Social Cognition

What seems to have emerged from the above description of social neuroscience research is a characterization of social cognition that has tacit processes at its foundation; it seems that tacit processes both developmentally and cognitively precede those of the Story Teller. Further, tacit processes are not undirected processes that need to be constrained and controlled by rationality, but rather act as important guides to behavior. Drawing from the work of Haidt, Damasio and Gladwell, it appears to follow that tacit processes are the primary means of perception within the social realm. Haidt’s claim about moral judgment can at least be partially extended to the realms of decision-making (including judgment) and theory of mind, since the value of these important social cognitive processes is dependent on their ability to operate rapidly and upon a vast number of variables in the social environment that are pose inherent uncertainties. Tacit processes such as somatic-markers, intuitions, and snap judgments allow one to quickly extract from a wide range of interpretations of perceptual input a smaller and more manageable number of possible explanations and judgments upon which the Story Teller operates.

As Haidt suggests, the work of these tacit mechanisms predominates social cognition. While the Story Teller is able to rationally deliberate between interpretations and judgments, this is relatively rare when placed in relation to the automaticity of daily cognition. While rational Story Teller deliberation is employed in many decisions, as one’s experience would likely suggest, it is important to recognize that there are significantly more decisions the brain makes without the need for Story Teller involvement. Such decisions include something as simple as deciding to smile at an approaching friend to as serious as deciding to run from a man approaching you while holding a knife. While the latter example is likely not a daily occurrence, hopefully the former illustrates how one continually makes tacit inferences about the social environment on a daily basis.

B. Post-Hoc Reasoning: The Story Teller

The work of Haidt and Gladwell not only demonstrate the important roles that tacit processes play in making social value judgments and adjusting behavior based on inferred patterns in the environment, but also suggest that reasoning is often employed after tacit processes have already arrived at sophisticated judgments in an attempt to make sense of those judgments. Further, their work also suggests that the post-hoc work of the Story Teller is faulty. For example, in cases of priming, subjects have been observed to incorrectly explain why they arrived at a particular decision. Observations of dumbfounding also suggest that at times while people may be confident in their judgments, their Story Teller is unable to accurately explain why they hold those judgments. The observations presented in Haidt and Gladwell’s work thereby suggest that much of one’s social cognition is tacit in nature, and the Story Teller only has access to the outputs of those tacit processes (e.g. judgments), of which it then attempts to make a coherent explanation.

This description or story of social cognition fits within Grobstein’s characterization of cognition and the bipartite brain. As aforementioned, Grobstein has proposed that one obtains information about the world through completely tacit neural activity. These systems of neurons tacitly interpret the inputs (patterns of activity) from sensory systems, generate additional patterns of activity, and send the outputs of those interpretations to additional neural networks. Many of these outputs are sent to other neural systems that operate tacitly, but eventually some outputs are sent to the neocortex, where the Story Teller attempts to combine these inputs into a simplified story that constitutes one’s internal experience (the picture in the head). Thus the Story Teller can be characterized as a system that attempts to make post-hoc interpretations of sophisticated outputs already achieved by tacit processes.

C. Social Cognition and The Bipartite Brain

This paper suggests that social cognition stems from two systems in the brain, each of which is capable of both arriving at distinct and sophisticated stories/judgments, as well as influencing the judgments arrived at by the other. The bipartite nature of the brain offers an especially useful mechanism for social cognition, as the two levels of cognition are able to derive unique interpretations, each with their own value. The tacit system allows one to rapidly create stories from a vast expanse of inputs in a largely uncertain environment. These can thereby serve as immediate foundations for behavior and perception, as well as a means for making the Story Teller’s task more efficient. The Story Teller, in turn, allows one to extract from some of the stories produced by tacit processes and simpler story, which represents a coherent experience of the self and social world. Thus the stories created by the Story Teller function allow one to possess a unified interpretation of one’s experience, upon which one can reflect and ultimately influence the stories produced by the tacit system. The bipartite brain’s usefulness is then in its capacity to create multiple interpretations of inputs to the brain, which are capable of influencing one another so as to create new and possibly better stories.

This characterization of social cognition draws from observations made within the field of social neuroscience, and it would behoove the field to incorporate such a summary of its observations into its future descriptions of human sociality. Research should focus more attention on describing the manner in which tacit processes and the Story Teller influence the conclusions of the other. This includes inquiring into how often this occurs, what influence these interactions have on behavior, and perhaps how to best or most efficiently make use of the Story Teller’s top-down influence on cognition. Finally, social neuroscience should strive to educate the community at large on this bipartite construction of the brain, as how one understands social cognition largely effects one’s behavior and one’s understanding of others.

D. Final Comments

This review was mean to be descriptive, examining various manners in which both tacit and Story Teller processes contribute to and ultimately shape social cognition. In this sense, it has potential value for aiding in how one understands current descriptions of social cognition. One of the primary goals of this paper was to highlight the importance of tacit processes, which have been largely underappreciated in social neuroscience descriptions of social cognition. One is often tempted to consider social cognition in terms of the Story Teller, as those processes comprise one’s experience of the social realm. While tacit processes are not available to the Story Teller, the primary means by which one understands and defines his/her self and the social environment, tacit functions are fundamental to shaping who one is and how one behaves within and perceives the social world. Hopefully the reader take from this paper an appreciation of the important roles played by tacit processes in (social) cognition.

Additionally, this paper was intended to described social cognition a product not of a singular conscious or unconscious mechanism, but as an emergent product of both the outputs and interactions of these two cognitive systems. It is from the various interactions occurring at multiple levels (bottom-up influences, top-down influences, environmental influences) that social cognition and behavior emerge. For this reason descriptions of human sociality will benefit from recognizing that sociality is a product of social agents interacting, who are themselves emergent products of “unconscious” tacit processes and “conscious” Story Teller interpretations.


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