- Published8 May 2023
- Author Marissa Fessenden
- Source BrainFacts/SfN
Like herds of animals, flocks of birds, or schools of fish, humans are social creatures. Our social human nature is reflected in our brain anatomy and function: Large parts of our brains are dedicated to processing information about other people.
Social neuroscience refers to the study of neural functions that underlie interpersonal behavior, such as reading social cues, understanding social rules, choosing socially appropriate responses, and understanding oneself and others. The latter process is known as “mentalizing” — making sense of your own thought processes and those of others. The medial prefrontal cortex (PFC), and some areas of the lateral PFC, are highly involved in these skills.
Mentalizing underlies some of our most complex and fascinating mental abilities. These include empathy and “theory of mind,” which is understanding the mental states of others and the reasons for their actions. Until recently, research devoted little emphasis to the social and emotional abilities needed for these higher-order mental functions, but now such topics are being avidly studied.
An obvious way that we understand the mental states of others is by observing their actions. This requires the brain to see and recognize others’ movements and facial expressions, and then draw inferences about the feelings and intentions that drive them. Scientists have learned how brain activity drives these processes by scanning people’s brains with fMRI as subjects watch video clips of other people.
Several regions in the medial PFC help us make judgments about ourselves and others. In addition, a specific region at the border of temporal and parietal lobes, the temporoparietal junction (TPJ), appears to focus on the distinctions between ourselves and others. The TPJ is also activated when we watch others engage in actions that seem at odds with their intentions.
A popular, though controversial, theory of social cognition centered on the discovery of “mirror neurons.” In the 1990s, scientists identified neurons in the motor cortex of rhesus macaques that fired when the monkeys performed a specific action. They were astonished to find these neurons also fired when the monkeys simply watched another person or monkey perform that same action. The findings prompted speculation that mirror neurons underlie our ability to understand another person’s actions. Additional studies revealed humans also possessed mirror neurons and in even wider brain networks.
Mirror neurons then permeated popular media. Within a decade of their discovery, however, mirror neurons’ role in social cognition was called into question — many scientists argued that there was little direct evidence supporting mirror neurons’ purported roles in theory of mind, mentalizing, and empathy.
Researchers are continuing to investigate mirror neurons, as well as the complexities of the human brain that allow us to understand and empathize with others.
Adapted from the 8th edition of Brain Facts by Marissa Fessenden.
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