Society for Social Neuroscience: Work Small, Think Big

Update 12/14/10: Links to: University of Chicago press release on founding of Society for Social Neuroscience; the journal Social Neuroscience. Also forthcoming in 2011: Alexander Todorov, Susan Fiske, and Deborah Prentice, Social [Cognitive] Neuroscience; Toward Understanding the Underpinnings of the Social Mind (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011); and Jean Decety and John Cacioppo, Handbook of Social Neuroscience (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).

We attended the first meeting of the newly formed Society for Social Neuroscience, which took place at the Manchester Grand Hyatt in San Diego on Friday, November 12, one day before the opening of SFN 2010. References included at end of post.

The interdisciplinary field of social neuroscience was founded in the early 90s, largely through the efforts of John Cacioppo following publication of influential papers by Leslie Brothers (1990, 1996), who introduced the term “social brain,” and by Cacioppo and Gary Berntson (1992). The society was established in 2009 “to give scientists from diverse disciplines and perspectives the opportunity to meet, communicate with, and benefit” from each other’s work.

The society’s inaugural meeting, organized by John Cacioppo and Jean Decety, featured  presentations by a stellar group of researchers, on topics ranging from the regulation of gene expression associated with social behavior in honeybees to cognitive hierarchy reasoning in game theory. A major theme was understanding the mechanisms by which social information acts on the brain. But many of the speakers also addressed the implications of their work for psychiatric disorders on the one hand, and more generally for culture and society on the other.

They had me at Hello. The subject of the opening talk by Gene Robinson of the University of Illinois was the social regulation of brain gene expression associated with intensity of aggression in honey bees. A number of studies have teased out inherited, developmental, and environmental influences on bee aggression – a complex, polygenic behavioral phenotype – by focusing on two strains:  docile European honey bees (EHB) and aggressive Africanized honey bees (AHB).

Using microarray analysis to obtain transcriptional profiles of hundreds of individual brains, Robinson and colleagues have shown that aggression in EHB and AHB is regulated by some of the same genes. Their expression is strongly influenced by social (i.e., colony – bees were cross-fostered) and chemical (i.e., presence of the alarm pheromone isopentyl acetate) environments, as well as by developmental stage (older bees are more aggressive than younger bees).

Robinson suggested that inherited differences in honey bee colony defense appear to have evolved via gene expression, in particular in EHB via a “dampening” of transcriptional machinery associated with response to alarm pheromone.  In short, this work beautifully exemplifies how “nurture begets nature.”

Webcasts of the meeting presentations by Robert Blanchard, Larry Young, Bruce McEwen, Mario Mendez, David Amodio, Colin Camerer, and Martha Farah, as well as Gene Robinson,  will be available on the website soon.

All in all, the society’s inaugural meeting was a great success. Long after the concluding talk by neuroethicist Martha Farah, audience members lingered in small groups outside the ballroom, talking animatedly in the afterglow of a brilliant sunset.


Brothers, L. (1990). “The social brain: A project for integrating primate behavior and neurophysiology in a new domain.” Concepts in Neuroscience, 1, 27–51.

Brothers, L. (1996). Friday’s footprint: How society shapes the mind. New York: Oxford University Press.

Cacioppo, J. T., & Berntson, G. G. (1992). Social psychological contributions to the decade of the brain: Doctrine of multilevel analysis. American Psychologist, 47, 1019–1028. [link to website for downloadable pdf]

Decety, J., & Cacioppo, J. T. (2011). Handbook of social neuroscience. New York: Oxford University Press.

Todorov, A., Fiske, S. T., & Prentice, D. (2011). Social neuroscience: Toward understanding the underpinnings of the social mind. New York: Oxford University Press.

This entry was posted in challenges of interdisciplinary research, social neuroscience by Constance A. Cummings. Bookmark the permalink.

About Constance A. Cummings

Constance A. Cummings, PhD, is Project Director of the non-profit Foundation for Psychocultural Research, which supports and advances interdisciplinary research and scholarship at the intersection of brain, mind, culture, and mental health and illness. She is co-editor (with Carol Worthman, Paul Plotsky, and Dan Schechter) of Formative Experiences: The Interaction of Caregiving, Culture, and Developmental Psychobiology (Cambridge University Press, 2010) and (with Laurence Kirmayer and Rob Lemelson) the forthcoming Re-Visioning Psychiatry: Cultural Phenomenology, Critical Neuroscience, and Global Mental Health (Cambridge, 2015). She received her doctorate in theoretical linguistics from New York University.

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