Monday, December 1, 2008

Week 10: Social cognition (Part 1)

Jackendoff, R. (2003). An agenda for a theory of social cognition. In R. Jackendoff (Author), Language, consciousness, culture: Essays on mental structure. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Beer, J.S., Shimamura, A. P., & Knight, R. T. (2004). Frontal lobe contributions to executive control of cognitive and social behavior. In Gazzaniga, M.S. (Ed.), The cognitive neurosciences III (pp. 1091-1104). Cambridge, MA : MIT Press.

Ochsner, K. N. (2007). Social Cognitive Neuroscience: Historical Development, Core Principles, and Future Promise. In Kruglanksi, A., & Higgins, E. T. (Eds.). Social Psychology: A Handbook of Basic Principles (pp. 39-66). 2nd Ed. New York: Guilford Press.

The articles for this week’s topic, were only somewhat illuminating on the actual topic of social cognition, as they covered the topic in much broader strokes than would have been helpful as an introduction to the topic. Nevertheless, some interesting information was gleaned.

Beer et al. (2004) review several studies that describe the differential role of lateral versus medial/orbitofrontal regions of the prefrontal cortex. Specifically, lateral prefrontal cortex is repeatedly implicated in what are traditionally conceived of as cognitive processes, and the article focuses primarily upon the role of the LPFC in attention. Evidence from several lesion and animal studies implicate the LPFC in allocating attention, inhibiting or exciting neuronal activity in sensory regions (visual or auditory). Lesion studies demonstrate how damage to this region impairs the individual’s ability to filter out irrelevant information. In sum, the LPFC plays an important role in controlled information processing. By contrast, the medial and orbitofrontal regions of the PFC appear to be implicated in self-regulation and the processing of social information, serving to integrate emotional and cognitive information.

This idea is not new to us here, as in prior weeks we have seen this region implicated in the integration of cognition and emotion in decision making, reasoning, and behavioral inhibition (á la dear Phinneas Gage). It makes sense, then, that processing social information would implicate this region as well. One could hypothesize that acting in socially appropriate ways would require a similar process as decision making, wherein one decides whether to follow an emotional impulse or inhibit that impulse based upon contextual and historical information. Beer et al. also review studies implicating the medial PFC in encoding information relevant to the self and making inferences about other’s behaviors (theory of mind). This would also make sense, as this region appears to be important for integrating information about the emotional salience of stimuli with reward-based information about potential responses to this information. One could argue social information is inherently emotional, as it involves processing information that is ultimately pertinent to the maintenance and attainment of survival goals. We learn to navigate the social world in ways that maximize our own survival by maintaining proximity to important others that aid in our survival and maintaining distance from those that threaten it. At the risk of being reductionist, it seems to circle back to that old familiar theme of cognitive/affective integration.

Jackendoff’s article picks up this point, by discussing the myriad of social interactions that one must learn to navigate. Taking a much different approach, he argues for the analogy between social cognition and language development. Both language and social competency are attained through the interplay between “hardwired,” computational capacity and culturally driven, externally derived information. We are born with the capacity to learn language, but the nuances of what we learn and how our language is ultimately used is shaped by our language interactions with those around us. Similarly with social behavior – we have an innate ability for social processes such as empathy, “cheater detection” or the ability to detect the intentions of others, theory of mind, emotional contagion or the ability to mirror the emotions expressed by others, and self-monitoring/self-regulation in the service of socially appropriate behavior. How these capacities are expressed is a function of the immediate world we live in, and as such are culturally and group specified. The more I read, the more beautifully orchestrated human nature seems – information gathered through the internal lens, the external synthesized with the internal, and the combination offered back out again to the world.

The third article in this series, by Kevin Ochsner, is less a treatise on social cognition than a manifesto for the new discipline of social cognitive neuroscience. The article lays out an agenda for this new line of research, encouraging a multi-layered analysis of social psychology, examining the behavioral, computational/representational, and neuronal levels. The chapter suggests ways in which previously distinct disciplines of social psychology, social cognition, and cognitive neuroscience can work together to answer questions in a more constrained and meaningful way. While the chapter was a very interesting read, it did not provide much by way of examining specific research in social cognition, so was less useful to our immediate purposes here. Perhaps the Thagard chapter will provide more fine-grained insight…

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