The Neuroscience of Social Emotions and Cognition: From Ontogeny to Plasticity
Presenter: Tania Singer, Professor and Director, Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences
5101 Tolman Hall
The social neurosciences have focused on the question of how people relate to and understand each other. Researchers have distinguished between at least two different routes on the understanding of others: one affective-motivational route referring to our ability to feel with (empathy) and for (compassion) another person, and a cognitive route allowing to infer other people's intentions, beliefs, and thoughts - a capacity also referred to as Theory of Mind, mentalizing or cognitive perspective taking. While it has been proposed that humans share states of others by means of projecting their own mental or feeling states onto the other, such a mechanism also has the risk of resulting in an emotional egocentricity bias (EEB), especially in situations when others feel or think differently from oneself.
After introducing relevant concepts and their underlying neuronal basis, I will present newly developed paradigms and results regarding the development of social emotions and EEB in children and suggest that it is the late development of parietal-frontal networks that predict increased emotional egocentricity in younger children. More specifically, I will argue that overcoming emotional egocentricity relies on socio-affective brain networks including the supramarginal gyrus, whereas inhibiting incongruent cognitive beliefs engages adjacent brain structures related to the mentalizing network including the temporo-parietal junction. I will further present results from studies revealing evidence for a similar dissociation in autism as well as through the differential training of socio-affective and socio-cognitive capacities in healthy adult populations. More specifically, I will introduce the ReSource Project, a large-scale multi-methodological one-year secular mental training program that aimed by means of three distinct 3-months training modules at the cultivation of 1) attention and interoceptive awareness, 2) meta-cognition and perspective taking on self and others, and 3) empathy, compassion and prosocial motivation in more than 200 subjects. I will present first training-module specific findings suggesting malleability of the social brain on the level of behavior, brain, and health and discuss their relevance for models of social cognition and society.