Exploring the Neural Correlates of Social Cognition

Exploring the Neural Correlates of Social Cognition

Developed by Cacioppo and Bernston in 1992, social neuroscience is an unfolding field in psychology. The emergence and momentum gained by cognitive psychology led to a cognitive orientation in the portrayal of social psychology. Contemporary findings in psychology have emphasized on the role of cognitive processes and neural development of an individual in his or her mental functioning. Social cognition is a construct that emerged from such a perspective and as defined by Fiske and Taylor in 1991 as well as Scheider in 1991 refers to the thoughts attributed toward social objects involving individuals and oneself. Social cognition includes automatic thoughts of an individual regarding his or her own life. It could be negative thoughts about oneself, anticipation of performance failure, and anticipation of negative evaluation by others. Several theories are applied to explain the fundamental principles of social cognition, the theory of mind being the most significant among them. The theory of mind is the ability to derive a neural basis for the process of attributing mental states to other people's beliefs, desires, and intentions. The theory of mind or the process of mentalizing is a central aspect in the process of social cognition as put forward by Shaw et al. in 2004. Within the theory of mind, the theory theory explains social cognitions in terms of one’s implicit or explicit mindreading and the stimulation theory attributes interpretation of others’ mental states based on an individual’s own cognitive mechanisms. Since social cognition is an attempt to explain social perception and attributions from a cognitive perspective, it is necessary to explore the neural correlates of the theory of mind and social cognition in general.

A substantial amount of research papers are reviewed for this purpose and the following results were obtained. Social neuroscience is explored widely from the perspective of social attribution theories and it was identified by Jones and Davis in 1976 and further validated by Kelly in 1972 that medial prefrontal cortex plays a significant role in dispositional attribution. Activation of mPFC was also found to be correlated with functioning of temporoparietal junction thus proving that temporoparietal junction has the most crucial role in social perception and attribution in individuals. Wolf, Dziobek, and Heekeren in their paper published in 2009 mentioned that the major brain areas involved in interpretation of others’ mental states are superior temporal sulcus, temporoparietal junction, medial prefrontal cortex, temporal poles, and precuneus. Further in their research, they identified that the occipito-parietotemporal cortices regulate the functions of face processing and recognition, the temporal lobes, lateral prefrontal cortex, and precuneus control language comprehension, and the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex and the precuneus mediate self-referential mental activity. Their results are found to be in alignment with another research conducted in 2016 by Deuse et al., in which, the temporoparietal junction, medial prefrontal cortex, and precuneus were identified to be correlates of mental state attribution. The study in addition discovered right middle temporal gyrus and superior temporal sulcus also to be regulating social cognition. The research furthermore proved that amygdala is active during comprehension of emotional contents in social interactions and anterior insula in specific negative emotions. A peak in orbito-frontal activity was also observed in the same study during attribution of others’ mental states. The role of medial prefrontal cortex and temporoparietal junction are also found to be significant in social cognition in other considerable studies as well.

Neural correlates of social cognition were also explored on individuals suffering from various psychological disorders. Role of orbitofrontal cortex and other prefrontal areas connected with amygdala was identified as influencing social cognition in another study by Lindenberg et al. in 2005 in which they studied the neural correlates of genetically abnormal social cognition in Williams syndrome. Amygdala activity was also found to be significantly affecting face processing aspects of social cognition in a study on autistic children and those with Klinefelter’s syndrome. The role of temporal pole in social semantic processing and fusiform gyrus, superior temporal sulcus, and insula in regulating comprehension of face trustworthiness are also proved by the same as well as other related studies. Furthermore, thalamic activation, frontolimbic and superior temporal sulcus activities were identified to be mediating social cognitive characteristics in autism spectrum disorders and schizophrenia in a study by Sugranyes in 2011. Another study on social cognition and emotion assessment on frontotemporal dementia patients by Bertoux et al. in 2014 revealed neural functioning of rostral areas of medial prefrontal cortex in faux pas contents and dorsal parts of mPFC in emotional constituents. In a study on neural correlates of impairment in social cognition in first episode psychosis, functions of left superior temporal gyrus was again validated in the process of social cognition,  along with left middle frontal gyrus, right supplementary motor cortex, and the left inferior parietal lobule.

In addition to the above findings, research has also identified the anterior cingulate gyrus to be potentially influencing social cognition and social comprehension. A study by Apps, Rushworth, and Chang in 2016 proved that the ACCg responds to information related to others as well as attribution of their motivating factors. Furthermore, considerable volume reduction was obtained in the ACC of patients with schizophrenia along with decreased fractional anisotropy in the anterior cingulum bilaterally and inabilities in the paracingulate and cingulate sulcus. They were also found to have impaired social cognitive abilities when assessed using emotional attribution tasks. Thus social cognition could be correlated with functioning of cingulate gyrus. Besides, a substantial amount of research also indicates that cerebellum is also actively involved in social cognition, and specifically in the process of social mentalizing as was identified by Overwalle et al. in 2013.

Hence, it could be derived from previous studies that the most significant correlation in the process of mentalizing is associated with the neural activation of the temporoparietal junction, the cingulate cortex, and the frontal cortex, with significant activation of mPFC. Additionally, few studies have also identified the association of the theory of mind with the cerebellum and the amygdala and such findings lead to attribution of cognitive aspects to both the regions which are not usually discovered to be involved in cognition. However the construct requires an extensive research in future for further validation as well as to unveil additional correlates, if any. Thus, the following article could be used as a tool for further exploration of the neural correlates of social cognition and theory of mind, thereby deriving a biological basis for the social aspects of cognition.

About the Author

Parvathy Viswanath
Post Graduate Student (Psychology).

I'm Parvathy Viswanath, M.Sc Psychology student from Indian Institute of Psychology and Research, Bangalore, Karnataka, India. I hail from Thrissur

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