3×5: Culture, Neuroscience, and Psychiatry Weekly Roundup: Empathy (August 6)

UPDATE: New links from Lori Hogenkamp via Facebook at end of post.

Brief note: I’ve come to realize that empathy (and its putative component processes – mirror neuron networks, affect sharing, mentalizing) brings out almost everything that’s problematic in social neuroscience research: problems of a conceptually vague cover term, problems with extrapolating from animal models (e.g., monkeys don’t imitate); problems with fMRI/ROI, problems with science writing for the public (e.g., this publisher blurb for Marco Iacoboni’s Mirroring People: “From imitation to morality, from learning to addiction, from political affiliations to consumer choices, mirror neurons seem to have properties that are relevant to all these aspects of social cognition”), problems with a too-powerful metaphor (err, the mirror) that’s hard to repack in the box after that last quote :( problems with extrapolating in other ways (see Emily Willingham’s post on what she describes as the “no empathy in autism meme” – as Ian Hacking said, “The history of late 20th century medicine will … also [be] a history of advocacy groups”), etc., etc.

On second thought, there are many positive implications that hover over all this work – for theory of mind, radical embodied cognition, network science approaches to the brain’s structural and functional connectivity  . . .

Many thanks to the Neuroanthropology Interest Group on Facebook for suggestions and Center for Building a Culture of Empathy and Compassion for inspiration! 


1. “Empathy as cultural process: Insights from the cultural neuroscience of empathy” by Bobby Cheon, Vani Mathur, and Joan Chiao (WCPRR, 2010).

2. Via Eugene Raikhel (Neuroanthropology Interest Group): See the just-published special issue of “Science in Context” on “The Varieties of Empathy in Science, Art, and History.” It includes an article by Shaun Gallagher (“Empathy, Simulation, and Narrative“), one by Allan Young (“The Social Brain and the Myth of Empathy“) and a number of others.

3. Roundup on “Anthropology, Teaching, and Empathy” in early 2012 by Jason Antrosio of Anthropology Report and a related post by Rex on Savage Minds, “Empathy, or, seeing from within.”

4. Hollan, D. C., & Throop, C. J. (2011). The anthropology of empathy: Experiencing the lives of others in Pacific societies. New York: Berghahn.

5. Blog post by Emily Willingham (Dec 2011): “Autistic people: Insensitive to social reputation, sure, but what about empathy?” on the website Autism and Empathy.


1. Bernhardt, B. C., & Singer, T. (2012). The neural basis of empathy. Annual Review of Neuroscience, 35, 1–23.

2. Decety, J. Norman, G. J., Berntson, G. G., & Cacioppo, J. T. (2012). A neurobehavioral evolutionary perspective on the mechanisms underlying empathy. Progress in Neurobiology, 98(1), 38–48. See also, Decety, J. (2011b). The neuroevolution of empathyAnnals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1231, 35–45.

3. Zaki, J., & Ochsner, K. N. (2012). The neuroscience of empathy: Progress, pitfalls and promiseNature Neuroscience: Focus on Social Neuroscience [Perspective], 15(5), 675–680.

4. Decety, J. (2011a). Dissecting the neural mechanisms mediating empathy. Emotion Review, 3,92–108. See also, Decety, J. (2010). To what extent is the experience of empathy mediated by shared neural circuits? Emotion Review, 2(3), 204–207.

5. “Empathy and pro-social behavior in rats” Inbal Ben-Ami Bartal, Jean Decety, and Peggy Mason. See also 2011 Science paper by same group.



1. Cheng, Y., Hung, A., & Decety, J. (2012). Dissociation between affective sharing and emotion understanding in juvenile psychopathsDevelopment and Psychopathology, 24, 623–636.

[From Abstract]. . . youth with HCU [high callous-unemotional traits] exhibit atypical neural dynamics of pain empathy processing in the early stage of affective arousal, which is coupled with their relative insensitivity to actual pain. Their capacity to understand intentionality, however, was not affected. Such uncoupling between affective arousal and emotion understanding may contribute to instigating aggressive behaviors in juvenile psychopaths.

[From the paper] It is  important that the affective arousal deficit . . . cannot be explained by a lack of sensorimotor resonance [i.e., mirror neurons], as measured by mu wave suppression [this was an ERP study], which was present in a ll participants. This finding indicates that affective arousal is not mediated by the mirror neuron system.

2. “Empathy and alterity in cultural psychiatry” by Laurence Kirmayer (Ethos, 2008).

3. “Empathy and otherness: Humanistic and phenomenological approaches to psychotherapy of severe mental illness” by Elizabeth Pienkos and Louis Sass (Pragmatic Case Studies in Psychotherapy, 2012).

4. Empathy in mental illness edited by Tom Farrow and Peter Woodruff (CUP, 2007).

5. “Zero degrees of empathy” by Simon Baron-Cohen, covering disorders of empathy (borderline personality disorder, psychopathy, narcissism) and genetic, endocrine, and social influences.


3×5: Culture, Neuroscience, and Psychiatry Weekly Roundup (May 21)

My five favorite reads for week of 14–21 May 2012:


1. Greg Downey of Neuroanthropology: “Not Allowed to Have a Small Heart: Tourette Syndrome.” May 15 – June 15 is Tourette Syndrome Awareness Month and Greg has written a beautiful post about the neuropsychiatric disorder, which includes a review of Rob Lemelson’s deeply moving ethnographic film, The Bird Dancer.

2. Science historian Eric Michael Johnson’s Behind the TIME Cover: Most Human Societies Don’t Get Our Breastfeeding Hangup.

3. The Miami Herald also weighs in on the Time cover with a well-sourced commentary: “Did Cave Babies Have Attachment Parents” for which they pay thanks to Katherine Dettwyler of the University of Delaware and co-editor of Breast-Feeding: Biocultural Perspectives, Katherine Hinde of Harvard University and author of the blog Mammals Suck, and Meredith Small of Cornell University and author of Our Babies, Ourselves: How Biology and Culture Shape the Way We Parent.

4. The research of psychologist Carol Ryff, a speaker at our next Culture, Mind, and Brain conference, is featured in a piece by science journalist and biopsychologist Alice Walton in The Atlantic: “What We Know About How to Be Happy.”

5. Biocultural anthropologist Kate Clancy has a great post on her SCIAM Context and Variation blog about why we shouldn’t prescribe hormonal contraception to 12-year-olds.


1. Edward Bullmore and Olaf Sporns’s “The Economy of Brain Network Organization” in the May 2012 issue of Nature Reviews Neurosience. 

2. Also, in Frontiers in Psychiatry, Alex Fornito and Edward Bullmore recently discussed the possibility of “connectomic intermediate phenotypes for psychiatric disorders.”

3. Fascinating PNAS paper on maternal stress and affective problems (“Maternal cortisol over the course of pregnancy and subsequent child amygdala and hippocampus volumes and affective problems“) by Buss et al.

4. Also in PNAS, emotion related circuitry in young children (I recently heard one of the co-authors,  Lucina Uddin of Stanford, give an interesting talk about functional connectivity with implications for autism at UCLA): http://www.pnas.org/content/109/20/7941.short?rss=1.

5. Finally, there is a great review on shared neurosubstrates by Naomi Eisenberger in the June 2012 issue of Nature Reviews Neuroscience:  “The pain of social disconnection.”


1. China Daily discusses the country’s shortage of mental health services.

2. New England Journal of Medicine has a commentary by Paul McHugh and Phillip Slavney on the DSM (“Mental Illness – Comprehensive Evaluation or Checklist?”).

3. Jones, Rahman, and Everitt’s fascinating paper on psychiatric diagnosis at Maudsley Hospital 1924-1935  in latest History of Psychiatry  is about an era “before classification systems were tested for reliability” and “diagnosis was fluid, reflecting changing hypotheses about causation, pathology and treatment.”

4. In case you’re thinking of buying, here’s a pdf of Catharine Coleborne’s review of Waltraud Ernst and Thomas Mueller’s Transnational Psychiatries: Social and Cultural Histories of Psychiatry in Comparative Perspective c. 1800-2000.

5. Finally, in response to my post on the DSM-5, George Dawson suggested I read Justin Marley’s passionate rebuttal of Edward Shorter’s blog post in SCIAM. I did before and have done so again! I’d recommend both (but I’m totally Team Shorter on this)  – as well as the McHugh & Slavney commentary in NEJM mentioned above.


Beneficial neural effects of bilingualism http://www.pnas.org/content/109/20/7877.short?rss=1

Great discussion on Twitter b/w Nature ed Noah Gray and science writer Carl Zimmer

  1. Share
    Gene therapy, epigenetics, and the scientific hype cycle: my review/essay in tomorrow’s Wall Street Journal: online.wsj.com/article/SB1…
    Fri, Mar 09 2012 16:39:50
  2. Share
    “@spellingwitch: @carlzimmer Epigenetics is so fascinating.” Indeed. But also a magnet for squishy thinking.
    Fri, Mar 09 2012 16:42:38
  3. Share
    .@carlzimmer I’d be careful about painting with such a broad brush. Scientists don’t (can’t) drive hype cycles nearly as hard as the media.
    Fri, Mar 09 2012 16:49:33
  4. Share
    @brentdanley @spellingwitch By squishy thinking I mean, “Epigenetics changes EVERYTHING!” See my review for an example. online.wsj.com/article/SB1…
    Fri, Mar 09 2012 16:49:55
  5. Share
    @noahWG Well, no one forces scientists to give over-the-top predictions in interviews! (And no one forces reporters to offer false hope.)
    Fri, Mar 09 2012 16:51:06
  6. Share
    .@carlzimmer And RE: epigenetics driving squishy thinking? Not in my experience amongst most SCIENTISTS. That field is brutal on itself.
    Fri, Mar 09 2012 16:51:11
  7. Share
    @noahWG I didn’t mean to suggest that scientists were doing the squishy thinking about epigenetics. Again, see my review for epigenetics woo
    Fri, Mar 09 2012 16:52:05
  8. Share
    @noahWG See also Jerry Coyne on a tirade against epigenetics-mania from other scientists: whyevolutionistrue.wordpre…
    Fri, Mar 09 2012 16:53:09
  9. Share
    @carlzimmer Let’s estimate a rule: For every over-the-top scientist prediction a journo runs with, there are ~10 sci’s who’ll debunk it.
    Fri, Mar 09 2012 16:54:05
  10. Share
    @carlzimmer I did. It was mainly focused on the well-documented early failures of gene therapy. Epigenetics is hardly equitable at this pt.
    Fri, Mar 09 2012 16:56:07
  11. Share
    @noahWG Let’s get some data on that first before we call it a rule!
    Fri, Mar 09 2012 16:57:57
  12. Share
    @carlzimmer Thanks for the post. It epitomizes a massive disconnect b/t the real sci & external views. Coyne’s fighting a diff fight there.
    Fri, Mar 09 2012 16:58:40
  13. Share
    @carlzimmer If you can get all of your journalism students to collect the data points as they prepare stories, I’ll collate!!
    Fri, Mar 09 2012 17:00:00
  14. Share
    @noahWG “real scientists and external views” on epigenetics? What about this: nature.com/news/2008/10100…
    Fri, Mar 09 2012 17:12:51
  15. Share
    @carlzimmer The NIH has a hit-or-miss track record with their “big biology big money” pet projects. Latest is the human brain connectome.
    Fri, Mar 09 2012 17:15:48
  16. Share
    @carlzimmer But fair enough; I’m just wondering whether it’s part of the hype cycle to criticize epigenetics as part of the hype cycle!
    Fri, Mar 09 2012 17:18:49
  17. Share
    @noahWG Of course! That’s how we get into the trough of disillusionment! ;-) en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hype…
    Fri, Mar 09 2012 17:19:46
  18. Share
    @carlzimmer You dog! You’re just trying to accelerate the process so we can get right to the Plateau of Productivity. Genius!!
    Fri, Mar 09 2012 17:21:09
  19. Share
    @noahWG You’ll thank me in 5-10 years, when epigenetic drugs let us live forever and have only mild dementia for eternity.
    Fri, Mar 09 2012 17:22:48
  20. Share
    @rkhamsi @carlzimmer Think it’s a concern RE:OVERspending at the expense of other meaningful projects. I assume return quant = always fuzzy!
    Fri, Mar 09 2012 17:25:51
  21. Share
    @ih_C_hi @carlzimmer Glad you enjoyed it because now all it means is I’ll have to read these papers over the weekend to catch up. :(
    Fri, Mar 09 2012 17:28:27
  22. Share
    @BioinfoTools @carlzimmer That’s why sci journos need to ask and engage. And ask. And ask!! And then ask again!! (to diff sci’s, of course.)
    Fri, Mar 09 2012 17:51:25
  23. Share
    Twitter, What I Learned Today #TWILT @carlzimmer taught me about the Hype Cycle pertaining to the complex course of scientific expectations.
    Fri, Mar 09 2012 21:09:20
  24. Share
    #TWILT In the hype cycle, I’m pretty sure my social media persona’s currently in the “Peak of Inflated Disillusionment” j.mp/xjTGMY
    Fri, Mar 09 2012 21:09:45

Steve Cole on Social Regulation of Gene Expression (video and paper links)

Steve Cole of UCLA is chair of a session focusing on sociocultural influences on gene expression at our forthcoming conference on culture, mind, and brain.

He recently spoke at UCLA’s Center for Behavior, Evolution, and Culture on “Social regulation of gene expression: the primate genome’s social program.” The video and paper have been posted on the center’s website

Link to BEC video: http://www.bec.ucla.edu/presentation.php?id=264

Link to Cole, S. W. (2009). Social regulation of gene expression. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 18, 3, 132–137.

CMB 2012 hot topic: “Functional and Clinical Neuroanatomy of Morality”

Alberto Priori of Università degli Studi di Milano, has just sent me an advanced copy of his co-authored review on morality for Brain.  (This was in response to our email blast about the FPR-UCLA 2012 conference, “Culture, Mind, and Brain: Emerging Concepts, Methods, and Applications.”)  Unfortunately, we don’t have the space to give morality its full due in the conference program, but I’m posting the abstract and link since this is sure to be a “hot topic” for discussion and debate at the conference.

Brain. 2012 Feb 13. [Epub ahead of print]

Functional and clinical neuroanatomy of morality.


Dipartimento di Scienze Neurologiche, Università degli Studi di Milano, Fondazione IRCCS Ca’ Granda, Ospedale Maggiore Policlinico, 20122 Milano, Italy.


Morality is among the most sophisticated features of human judgement, behaviour and, ultimately, mind. An individual who behaves immorally may violate ethical rules and civil rights, and may threaten others’ individual liberty, sometimes becoming violent and aggressive. In recent years, neuroscience has shown a growing interest in human morality, and has advanced our understanding of the cognitive and emotional processes involved in moral decisions, their anatomical substrates and the neurology of abnormal moral behaviour. In this article, we review research findings that have provided a key insight into the functional and clinical neuroanatomy of the brain areas involved in normal and abnormal moral behaviour. The ‘moral brain’ consists of a large functional network including both cortical and subcortical anatomical structures. Because morality is a complex process, some of these brain structures share their neural circuits with those controlling other behavioural processes, such as emotions and theory of mind. Among the anatomical structures implicated in morality are the frontal, temporal and cingulate cortices. The prefrontal cortex regulates activity in subcortical emotional centres, planning and supervising moral decisions, and when its functionality is altered may lead to impulsive aggression. The temporal lobe is involved in theory of mind and its dysfunction is often implicated in violent psychopathy. The cingulate cortex mediates the conflict between the emotional and the rational components of moral reasoning. Other important structures contributing to moral behaviour include the subcortical nuclei such as the amygdala, hippocampus and basal ganglia. Brain areas participating in moral processing can be influenced also by genetic, endocrine and environmental factors. Hormones can modulate moral behaviour through their effects on the brain. Finally, genetic polymorphisms can predispose to aggressivity and violence, arguing for a genetic-based predisposition to morality. Because abnormal moral behaviour can arise from both functional and structural brain abnormalities that should be diagnosed and treated, the neurology of moral behaviour has potential implications for clinical practice and raises ethical concerns. Last, since research has developed several neuromodulation techniques to improve brain dysfunction (deep brain stimulation, transcranial magnetic stimulation and transcranial direct current stimulation), knowing more about the ‘moral brain’ might help to develop novel therapeutic strategies for neurologically based abnormal moral behaviour.

Call for Proposals: Cross-Disciplinary Conversations Around the Neurosciences

From NeuroSelves to NeuroSocieties:
Cross-disciplinary Conversations around the Neurosciences

June 11th & 12th, 2012
An interdisciplinary conference hosted by Hampshire College, Amherst MA and the Foundation for Psychocultural Research-Hampshire College
Program in Culture, Brain & Development

Call for Proposals

Our understandings of self and society are being transformed by the neurosciences. At the same time neuroscience is shaped and driven by social structures such as law, media and education, and informed by fields such as sociology, anthropology, philosophy and evolutionary biology. The emerging fields of neuroethics, neurolaw and neuroeconomics are a testament to the desire to apply a better understanding of the brain to moral and social issues, but also point to a need to understand the myriad ethical, legal and cultural implications of the science itself.

This conference offers an opportunity for cross-disciplinary communication among scholars from many disciplines around how the neurosciences shape – and are shaped by – diverse social forces and cultural ideas.

We invite proposals from faculty and graduate students from a wide range of disciplines and perspectives.

Please submit a proposal that describes your background, interest, and proposed presentation topic.  Participants will be expected to give a short presentation of how their work engages with – or could shed light on – issues at the intersections of law, philosophy, economics, ethics, or some other aspect of the cultural/social/political sphere and the neurosciences. Participants will receive a $500 stipend. Some assistance is available to help with travel costs; applicants are invited to apply for travel funding.

The conference program features two keynote speakers: Dr. Adina Roskies, Associate Professor of Philosophy at Dartmouth College, and Dr. Peter Reiner, Professor, National Core for Neuroethics and the Kinsman Laboratory of Neurological Research, Department of Psychiatry and Brain Research Center, University of British Columbia.

Presentations and panels will be structured around participant interests and proposals. For illustrative purposes only, possible topics might include (but are not limited to): changing conceptions of moral, personal or economic decision-making; diagnosis, treatment and conceptions of mental illness; ethical challenges posed by neuroscience research; art and neuroscience of creativity; social and ethical implications of neuropharmacological interventions; interactions between educational policies, practices, and the neurosciences; questions of free will and human agency; neuroscience of empathy, trust, and sociality; brain imagery and popular media; neuroscientific recasting of social problems such as addiction and violence.

Please go to http://www.hampshire.edu/cbd/22808.htm for more information about the conference and submitting a proposal. The deadline to submit proposals is February 15th, 2012.  Please send proposals and questions to Ryan McLaughlin, CBD coordinator, rmclaughlin@hampshire.edu .

Sampling the great posters (!) at 11/11 Soc for Social Neuroscience meeting

I’ll be blogging at the 2011 Society for Social Neuroscience conference on Nov 10–11, 2011, for an interdisciplinary audience. I’m excited about this; I’d like to think of the next ten years as a decade of curiosity (to work outside narrow boundaries) and transformation as much as challenge (particularly for the new generation of academics) in which the possibilities and the pitfalls of expanding social and cultural neuroscience research programs are explored.

Err, back to Earth, this morning I decided to read through the poster abstracts and was quickly overwhelmed by the need to cover everything. Below is a sampling of fifteen abstracts that piqued my interest vis-a-vis our edited volume in process and our next conference (“the emerging neuroscience of culture”). Or, better, download the full program here.

Activity of cortical midline structures during two conditions of autobiographical self Authors: Helder F. Araujo, Jonas Kaplan, Hanna Damasio, and Antonio Damasio

Abstract: At each moment, we can access information about our own body, which includes the changes that occur as a consequence of interactions with the world and of functional adjustments within the organism’s interior. Ultimately, many such moments of self-knowledge are recorded in memory and are integrated in a coherent biography (the autobiographical self, Damasio, 1998, 1999, 2010), which amplifies the scope of the self process and can be used, as needed, in conscious social interactions. The neural basis of the autobiographical self has not been fully elucidated, although one of the most consistent findings of studies about self-reference is the involvement of cortical midline structures (CMSs): medial prefrontal, anterior cingulate, and posteromedial. However, most of these studies have targeted a limited domain of autobiographical self: the investigation of personal traits. Here we explore the involvement of CMSs in the domain of factual biography, e.g. facts that compose each person’s identity. In addition, we also study the involvement of CMS in the evaluation of personal traits, a domain often approached in investigations on self-reference. This is an fMRI block design study, in which 19 subjects answered questions about their own traits, about their factual biography, about the traits of an acquaintance and about factual biography of an acquaintance (4 experimental conditions). In each run, each of the conditions (blocks of 24 seconds) is repeated 3 times and separated by a ‘one-back-task’ (also in blocks of 24 seconds). The one-back-task was used as a baseline. There were a total of three runs per study. Preliminary analysis of data suggests that CMSs are involved in processing both self and non-self biographic information. In some regions of CMSs, non-self conditions were even correlated with higher activity levels than did self-related conditions. These results prompt further discussion about the role of CMSs in self-reference.

Damasio AR: Investigating the biology of consciousness. Transactions of the Royal Society (London) 353:1879-1882, 1998.
Damasio AR: The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness, Harcourt, New York, 1999
Damasio A: Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain. Pantheon, 2010
Affiliations: Brain and Creativity Institute, University of Southern California, USA; Neuroscience Graduate Program, University of Southern California, USA; Graduate Program in Areas of Basic and Applied Biology, University of Oporto, Portugal
Keywords: self, cortical midline structures

Bounded Empathy: Neural Responses to Outgroup Targets’ (Mis)fortunes
Authors: Mina Cikara and Susan Fiske

Abstract: A cursory reading of the emotion, empathy, and perception–action literatures might leave one with the impression that people spontaneously experience empathy in response to seeing another person in distress. Recent developments in social psychological and cognitive neuroscience research suggest otherwise: People frequently fail to empathize to the same extent with outgroup members as ingroup members. Not all outgroups are equivalent, however. Depending on the target, people may feel not only less empathy but also pleasure (Schadenfreude) in response to outgroup members’ misfortunes. In contrast, there may also be specific outgroups for whom people feel even more empathy than ingroup members when they suffer a misfortune. Furthermore, no intergroup empathy study of which we are aware has assessed empathy for positive events, which demonstrably varies as a function of group membership. The current fMRI study investigates whether mere stereotypes are sufficient to modulate empathic responses to other people’s good and bad fortunes, how these modulations manifest in the brain, and whether these affective and neural responses relate to endorsing harm against different outgroup targets. Participants report that they feel least bad when misfortunes befall envied targets and worst when misfortunes befall pitied targets, as compared with ingroup targets. Participants are also least willing to endorse harming pitied targets, despite pitied targets being outgroup members. However, those participants who exhibit increased activation in functionally defined insula/middle frontal gyrus when viewing pity targets experience positive events not only report feeling worse about those events but also more willing to harm pity targets in a tradeoff scenario. Similarly, increased activation in anatomically defined bilateral anterior insula, in response to positive events, predicts increased willingness to harm envy targets, but decreased willingness to harm ingroup targets, above and beyond self-reported affect in response to the events. Stereotypes’ specific content and not just outgroup membership modulates empathic responses and related behavioral consequences including harm.

Affiliations: MIT, Princeton University
Keywords: empathy, schadendfreude, stereotypes, fMRI

Facial expressions in mice
Authors: Erwin Defensor, Michael Corley, D. Caroline Blanchard, and Robert Blanchard

Abstract: A previous study described a method to measure facial expressions in mice experiencing pain (Langford et al, 2010). The method measured graded changes in the eyes, ears, cheek, nose and vibrissae of the mouse. Similar criteria were adopted in the current study to further characterize the nature of mouse facial expressions in several conditions: a medium bristle brush approaching the face, non-aggressive social interaction, aggressive social interaction, rat exposure and cat odor exposure. Results showed situation-dependent changes in facial expressions of mice. Most notably, different facial expressions were clearly displayed by resident and intruder mice prior to and during aggressive encounters, suggesting that changes in particular facial components may serve to protect sensitive or exposed body parts. The use of facial expressions as social signals is also discussed.

Affiliation: University of Hawaii
Keywords: facial expressions, aggression, social behavior

Neurochemistry of the BTBR T+tf/J mouse model of autism Authors: Ashley L. Jensen, Erwin B. Defensor, Brandon L. Pearson, D.C. Blanchard, Robert J. Blanchard and Adrian J. Dunn

Abstract: Autism is defined by three core behavioral features: impaired reciprocal social interactions, impaired communication and repetitive and stereotyped behaviors. Despite the absence of a reliable biomarker, several neuropathologies have been associated with the disorder including increased cortical volume at particular developmental ages, agenesis of the corpus callosum and dysfunction of neurotransmitter systems. Animal models allow investigation of anatomical, neurochemical and hormonal abnormalities potentially related to this disorder. Previous studies have shown that the inbred BTBR T+tf/J mouse strain (BTBR) displays several behaviors analogous to the core symptoms of autism. The current study measured central neurotransmitter activity in the BTBR at basal concentrations and also in response to a novel environment and social proximity. Brain tissue concentrations of norepinephrine (NE), dopamine (DA), serotonin (5-HT) and their respective metabolites were measured using high performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) with electrochemical detection. Behavioral results were consistent with previous findings in the social proximity test, showing that BTBR mice displayed decreased facial contact and increased crawl over and crawl under behaviors. Several neurochemcial strain differences were observed, especially in cortical and cerebellar concentrations of DA and 5-HT.

Affiliations: University of Hawaii at Manoa, Department of Psychology; Pacific Biosciences Research Center
Keywords: autism, animal models, neurotransmitters

From neural responses to population behavior: Neural focus group predicts population level media effects
Authors: Emily B. Falk, Elliot T. Berkman, and Matthew D. Lieberman

Abstract: Can neural responses to persuasive messages predict individual behavior change? Can the neural responses of a small group of individuals predict the behavior of larger groups of people (e.g. at the city or state level)? We will present data addressing these questions using a “brain-as-predictor” approach. Prior research demonstrates that individual and group behaviors can be predicted using neural activity recorded in response to public health messages. More specifically, neural activity in an a priori region of interest in medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC, BA10) during exposure to persuasive messages predicted behavior change above and beyond self-report measures (such as intentions and self-efficacy to change behavior). The present study builds directly on prior work in our lab in which we explored a behavior of relatively low motivational relevance (sunscreen use) and predicted individual behavior change over one week, and a follow-up study in which we predicted a behavior of high motivational relevance (smokers trying to quit) over a longer period of time (one month); in this context, neural signals more than doubled the variance explained by traditional self-report measures alone. Here, we will present results from an investigation in which neural activity in response to different mass media campaigns predicted the media campaigns’ relative success at changing behavior at the population level, significantly above chance levels. By contrast, the same participants’ self-reported projections of campaign efficacy did not predict the relative success of the campaigns at the population level. Our results highlight the use of the brain-as-predictor analysis approach, in which neural signals from a priori regions of interest are used to predict real-world outcomes of importance over weeks or months; furthermore, we extend the brain-as-predictor approach from predicting individual difference outcomes to show that neural signals not only predict individual behavior change, but may also predict population-level health behaviors. Finally, our results suggest that the brain contains hidden wisdom about the impact of persuasive messages at the individual and population level that is not otherwise accounted for in models of persuasion and behavior change.

Affiliations: University of Michigan, University of Oregon, University of California, Los Angeles
Keywords: fMRI, health, media, persuasion

Rewarding properties of aggression in the male Syrian hamster Authors: Mario Gil, Mark McDonald, Ngoc-Thao Nguyen, and H. Elliott Albers

Abstract: Conditioned place preference (CPP) is a type of classical conditioning in which an animal develops a preference for a compartment or environment that was previously paired with a rewarding stimulus. We tested the hypothesis that male Syrians hamsters can develop a CPP for aggression. Our CPP paradigm consisted of three phases: (1) initial preference tests (pretests), (2) conditioning, and (3) a final preference test (posttest). For all preference tests, the amount of time spent in each compartment of the CPP apparatus was recorded. The animals used in this study showed a clear initial preference for 1 of the 2 compartments. For the conditioning trials, an individually-housed (experimental) male was paired with a nonaggressive group-housed male (stimulus) in their non-preferred compartment for 10 min. An hour before or after stimulus-paired trials in the non-preferred compartment, experimental males were placed alone in their preferred compartment for 10 min. This procedure occurred daily for 5 consecutive days, and order of placement in the compartments was alternated daily. Preference scores and difference scores were calculated for both (pre and post) preference tests. There were no significant differences between pretest and posttest scores for control animals (n=13). Four of the experimental animals flank marked but didn’t show aggression toward the stimulus males. There was a trend toward an increase in preference scores (p=0.1) and a decrease in the difference scores (p=0.09) following conditioning in these animals. That is, before conditioning the mean preference and difference scores were 0.29 (±0.01) and 324.63 (±21.34), respectively. After conditioning, scores changed to 0.49 (±0.08) and 6.25 (±114.50), respectively. Eleven experimental animals showed low to medium levels of aggression. In these animals, conditioning significantly increased the mean preference score from 0.36 (± 0.02) to 0.50 (±0.05) (p< 0.05), while the mean difference score decreased from 208.55 (±26.17) to 5.55 (±76.82) (p< 0.05). The strongest effect was observed in 6 highly aggressive males, as conditioning significantly increased their mean preference score from 0.34 (±0.04) to 0.56 (±0.04) (p< 0.01), while their mean difference score changed from 240.42 (±54.98) to -86.50 (±68.99) (p< 0.01). Our results demonstrate that the Syrian hamster is an excellent rodent model for the study of the rewarding properties of aggression & social behavior. Our data support the hypothesis that aggression has rewarding properties and suggest that the expression of social dominance in nonaggressive animals may also be rewarding. Supported by NSF Grant IOS-0923301 to HEA.

Affiliations: Center for Behavioral Neuroscience; Neuroscience Institute, Georgia State University, Atlanta, GA USA
Keywords: aggression, social behavior, motivation, hamsters

Child maltreatment, cumulative lifetime stress and amygdala volume
Authors: Jamie Hanson, Moo Chung . Brian Avants, Karen Rudolph, Elizabeth Shirtcliff, James Gee, Richard Davidson, and Seth Pollak

Abstract: Child maltreatment and cumulative lifetime stress (e.g., unexpected deaths in the family, major health issues) are associated with a cascade of deleterious changes such as major alterations in important brain circuitry, negative outcomes in behavioral functioning, and increased risk for certain psychopathologies (for review, see Lupien et al., 2009). Child maltreatment and the associated disruption of the primary care-giving relationship, in particular, may be a unique diathesis for socio-emotional difficulties, as children who suffer abuse or deprivation/neglect experience significant problems with sensitivity to social boundaries, establishing relationships, emotion regulation under conditions of stress or change, and processing of specific emotions (Pollak, 2008). By investigating the commonalities and discontinuities existing in the sequelae of these different forms of adverse experiences, unique insights may be garnered regarding normative and atypical functioning. For example, there may be unique interactions between child maltreatment and cumulative lifetime stress, with greater negative impacts in children who have faced this early adversity than in those who have not faced this adversity. In this study, we examined the neurobiological correlates of lifetime stress exposure in a sample of children with and without a history of child maltreatment (n=128; mean age=12.6 years), using Symmetric Normalization (Avants & Gee, 2004) and a tensor-based morphometry analytic framework. We hypothesized that cumulative lifetime stress exposure would uniquely affect the amygdala, a brain region central to the processing of socio-emotional information, in children who suffered from early maltreatment but not those who did not suffer from early maltreatment. As hypothesized, a significant association emerged between higher levels of life stress and smaller amygdalae volumes in maltreated children (t=3.6, p<.005, uncorrected; see figure below) but not in non-maltreated children. Individual differences in amygdala volume were related (r=-.296, p=.015) to socio-emotional functioning (e.g., number of close friends, frequency of disciplinary issues at school) as assessed by semi-structured interviews with children and their parents. These findings suggest maltreatment and higher levels of cumulative lifetime stress may interact to uniquely affect important socio-emotional neural circuitry. Results will also be discussed in relation to neuroendocrine variables.

Affiliations: University of Wisconsin- Madison, University of Pennsylvania, University of Illinois at Urbana- Champaign, University of New Orleans
Keywords: adolescence, stress, early experience, maltreatment, socio-emotional

Do chimps “mirror” others’ actions? A functional neuroimaging study of action execution and observation
Authors: Erin Hecht, Lauren Davis and Lisa Parr

Abstract: Social learning is a behavioral adaptation that varies across primate species. Humans have a broad and complex repertoire of socially transmitted behaviors. We can duplicate not only the result of an observed action, but also the specific kinematic method in which it is achieved. In contrast, macaques have a smaller, simpler range of socially transmitted behaviors and duplicate only observed actions’ results. These species differences in behavior are paralleled by species differences in brain activity. Both humans and macaques have a fronto-parietal action observation/execution matching system. In macaques, this system responds only to object-directed actions – those that involve results. In humans, it also responds to purely kinematic, non-object-directed actions. Thus species differences in social learning may be related to which aspects of observed actions are “mirrored” in the brain. Chimpanzee social learning is intermediate to macaques and humans, but their mirror system has not yet been studied. Like humans, they are profuse social learners, but like macaques, they duplicate mainly the results of observed actions. We used positron emission tomography (PET) to investigate how the chimpanzee brain mirrors observed actions. Four chimpanzees were given a 15 mCi oral dose of flourodeoxyglucose (FDG), a radio-labeled glucose analog. Each subject was scanned in four separate conditions. In the execution condition, the chimp performed an object-directed reach-to-grasp action with a small ball. These actions occurred inside a box so that the chimp could not see its own movement. In the transitive observation condition, the chimp observed the experimenter performing the same actions. In the intransitive observation condition, the chimp observed the experimenter miming this action without the ball. In the rest condition, the chimp rested quietly. After a 45 minute testing period, subjects were anesthetized and scanned. FDG has a half-life of 110 minutes and upon decay releases a positron which is detected by the scanner. Brighter areas in the scan thus represent greater FDG uptake and therefore greater metabolic activity during the testing period. In both execution and transitive observation, chimpanzees activated frontal and parietal regions homologous to macaque and human “mirror areas.” In intransitive observation, these activations were weaker and more variable across subjects. Results are related to behavioral data on each subject’s observational learning abilities, as well as to diffusion tensor imaging data on the white matter connectivity of each subject’s activated regions.

Affiliations: Neuroscience Graduate Program, Yerkes National Primate Research Center, Center for Translational Social Neuroscience, Center for Behavioral Neuroscience, Division of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences
Keywords: social cognition/sensorimotor transformation: behavior and whole animal

Seeing is believing: Neural mechanisms of action perception are biased by team membership
Authors: Pascal Molenberghs, Veronika Halász, Jason Mattingley, Eric Vanman, and Ross Cunnington

Abstract: Group identification can lead to a biased view of the world in favor of “in-group” members. Studying the brain processes that underlie such in-group biases is important for a wider understanding of the potential influence of social factors on basic perceptual processes. In this study we used fMRI to investigate how people perceive the actions of in-group and out-group members, and how their biased view in favor of own-team members manifests itself in the brain. We divided participants into two teams and had them judge the relative speeds of hand actions performed by an in-group and an out-group member in a competitive situation. Participants judged hand actions performed by in-group members as being faster than those of out-group members, even when the two actions were performed at physically identical speeds. In an additional fMRI experiment we showed that, contrary to common belief, such skewed impressions arise from a subtle bias in perception and associated brain activity rather than decision making processes, and that this bias develops rapidly and involuntarily as a consequence of group affiliation. Our findings suggest that the neural mechanisms that underlie human perception are shaped by social context.

Affiliations: University of Queensland, Queensland Brain Institute; University of Queensland, School of Psychology
Keywords: fMRI, perception of action, group membership

Neural correlates of synchrony
Authors: George T. Monteleone, Elizabeth A. Majka, Haotian Zhou, J.S. Irick, Kimberly Quinn, Gun R. Semin, and John T. Cacioppo

Abstract: The human tendency to spontaneously synchronize with others has been extensively documented in various domains. In the present investigation, we experimentally investigated the neural correlates of perceived synchrony using a newly developed minimal synchrony paradigm that addresses several problems in the extant research, such as a confounding of synchrony and task performance. Specifically, individuals participated in a task similar to cell-phone texting but in which a simple beat (a single tap on the computer keyboard) replaced lexical content. The task was described to participants as “bexting,” short for beat-based texting. During the task, participants believed they were exchanging beats via computer with a human partner, unaware that the ostensible partner’s response was actually a computer-generated response manipulated to be synchronous or asynchronous. Following each condition, participants entered ratings of perceived synchrony with and affiliation for the partner. Sixteen healthy participants performed the task in a 3T Philips scanner. The experimental design was a Period (Bexting versus Rating) x 2 (Bexting Synchrony: high versus low) within-participants factorial design. In the bexting period, participants were instructed to tap beats at around 1 Hz on their own while viewing a pulsing icon representing each finger tap next to a second pulsing icon representing the ostensible partner’s response. In the rating period, participants rated how synchronous they regarded their partner, as well as a series of affiliation ratings felt towards the partner including rapport, liking, and desire to collaborate in the future. Bexting trials were 8s in duration and were blocked in sets of eight constituting each of four bexting rounds. The partner in half of the rounds produced beats that followed the participant by a mean lag of 120 or 220 ms with a temporal jitter of + 10 ms (high synchrony condition), and the partner in the other half of the blocks produced beats that followed the participant by a mean lag of 120 or 220 ms with a temporal jitter of + 110 ms added (low synchrony condition). For the fMRI analysis, 25 ROIs were identified based on prior research on social cognition including sub-regions of the medial prefrontal cortex, superior temporal sulcus, and temporo-parietal junction. Participants’ behavioral ratings were correlated with the BOLD response within participants for each ROI. R-values were converted to Fisher’s Z, and Z-scores were subjected to a one-sample, two-tailed t-tests at the group level to determine which neural regions were positively or negatively correlated with behavioral ratings at the group level. Results demonstrated a significant positive correlation between BOLD response and both perceived synchrony ratings and affiliation ratings in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) during the bexting task. The vmPFC has been reported in prior research to be involved in self-relevant processing as well as theory of mind tasks involving reasoning about the thinking of others. The current study suggests that components of neural networks involved in social cognition are also incorporated in spontaneous perceptions of social synchrony even without any explicit context of observing others’ actions or thinking about oneself.

Affiliations: University of Chicago, University of Birmingham, Utrecht University
Keywords: social neuroscience, social cognition, social psychology, synchrony

Genetic variation in the oxytocin receptor is associated with alterations in perceived social isolation, social rejection and psychological stress reactivity: A population based study in older individuals
Authors: Greg J. Norman, Louise C. Hawkley, Aaron Ball, Maike Luhmann, Steve W. Cole, Gary G. Berntson, and John T. Cacioppo

Abstract: The neuropeptide oxytocin has been implicated in a wide range of social processes, such as pair bonding, social anxiety, and social judgment and decision making, that may contribute to normal adjustment and psychiatric states. Indeed, pharmacological administration of oxytocin has previously been associated with in-group trust and out-group hostility as well as diminished social threat perception and increased theory of mind. Consistent with the pharmacological manipulation studies mentioned above, recent work suggests that single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) in the oxytocin receptor is associated with numerous social-affective processes. The present study sought to explore the effects of genetic variation in the oxytocin receptor (SNP; rs53576) on levels of perceived social isolation, sensitivity to social rejection and stress reactivity to psychological stress in a population based study of older individuals. Results revealed that males who were homozygous for the G allele showed the highest levels of perceived social isolation and showed significantly higher levels of sympathetic cardiac control following a psychological stressor. In contrast, females who were homozygous for the G allele were significantly more affected by social rejection, as measured by pre-post changes in negativity scores, and they showed significantly smaller parasympathetic withdrawal in response to psychological stress. These data, combined with the growing literature, suggest that variation in the oxytocin receptor system has important effects on social-affective processes related to social isolation, social rejection and stress reactivity.

Affiliations: Department of Psychology, The University of Chicago, Chicago, IL 60637; Department of Medicine, Division of Hematology-Oncology, UCLA School of Medicine, Los Angeles, CA, USA; Department of Psychology, The Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio 43210
Keywords: oxytocin, social isolation

Mapping the mind: a constructionist view on how mental states emerge from the brain
Authors: Suzanne Oosterwijk, Kristen A. Lindquist, Eric Anderson, Rebecca Dautoff, Yoshiya Moriguchi, and Lisa Feldman Barrett

Abstract: Neuroimaging studies tend to organize around specific categories, such as memory, cognition and emotion. Psychological constructionism provides a different view on how the mind emerges from the brain and proposes that different mental events (such as emotions, feelings or thoughts) arise from the continuous interplay of the same ‘psychological ingredients’, including sensation, interoception, conceptual knowledge, executive attention, and language. In the present study we used fMRI to examine how the neural networks associated with these ingredients contribute to the experience of three different mental states; a bodily state, an emotion, or a thought. While in the scanner, participants listened to auditory scenarios describing negative events. Participants were instructed to experience these scenarios in four different ways; to focus on bodily sensations; to experience an emotion, or to think about the event in an objective way. Trials started with a cue, followed by the auditory scenario, followed by two consecutive phases. In the construction phase participants created the mental state in reaction to the scenario; in the elaboration phase participants prolonged their mental state by elaborating on its content. To investigate brain regions that are important for the generation of variable mental states, we performed conjunction analyses on the activation patterns for all three conditions during the construction and elaboration phase. Analyses demonstrate substantial overlap in the construction phase in regions associated with self-reflection (precuneus, temporal parietal junction), sensory/motor processing (precentral gyrus, postcentral gyrus, SMA, MCC), executive attention (dlPFC, frontal pole), language (pars triangularis, pars opercularis) and interoception (anterior insula). Conjunction during the elaboration phase showed similar regions, with in addition a large cluster in the left ventromedial prefrontal cortex. To examine difference between body focus, emotion and thought, we calculated contrast maps focusing on the cortical surface of the whole brain. The most prominent results concerned the listening and elaboration phase. During listening, we found stronger activation in areas associated with self-reflection and conceptual knowledge (precuneus, temporal parietal junction, posterior cingulate gyrus), interoception (insula, anterior cingulate cortex) and sensation (precentral and postcentral gyrus) when participants where cued with body focus than when they were cued with emotion or thought. In contrast, emotion and thought demonstrated stronger activation in areas associated with auditory processing (planum temporale, superior temporal gyrus, Heschl’s gyrus). During the elaboration phase, we found stronger activation in areas associated with interoception (anterior insula) and sensory motor processes (precentral and postcentral gyrus) for body focus compared to emotion. Comparing thought to body focus and emotion, we found stronger activation in the default network (medial prefrontal cortex) and in areas associated with memory and conceptual processing (anterior temporal lobe, precuneus, parahippocampal gyrus). Overall, the results show that different mental states involve similar brain areas, associated with basic processes such as conceptualization, interoception, attention and language, albeit with relative differences in strength of activation. These results enrich our understanding of how different mental states emerge from the brain.

Affiliations: Northeastern University, Harvard University, Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging; National Institute of Mental Health, National Center of Neurology and Psychiatry
Keyword: mental states

Epigenetic modifications in the regulation of maternal experience in mice
Authors: Danielle S. Stolzenberg, Jacqueline Stevens, and Emilie F. Rissman

In numerous mammalian species experience interacting with offspring facilitates future maternal responding. In rodents, although parturitional hormones facilitate maternal responding, the facilitatory effects of maternal experience on subsequent maternal care depend on mother-infant interaction. We have recently found that experience with pups induces long-lasting effects on subsequent maternal care in spontaneously maternal C57BL/6J (B6) mice. Importantly, subtle differences in the amount of pup experience affect maternal care. For example, whereas 2 days of pup experience (2 hours/day) promoted retrieval behavior in the familiar home cage, at least 4 days of pup experience was necessary for females to retrieve pups on the novel T-maze. One mechanism through which experience-dependent behavioral modifications are regulated is epigenetic histone acetylation. Addition of acetyl groups by histone acetyltransferases (HATs) to the histone proteins around which DNA is wrapped increases the sensitivity of DNA to transcriptional regulation. Experience-dependent behavioral modifications have been linked to epigenetic modifications, however, how these mechanisms mediate experience-dependent effects on maternal care is untested. In support of the idea that experience-dependent effects on maternal responsiveness are mediated, at least in part, by epigenetic modifications, maternal experience-dependent increases in maternal care are associated with increased expression of the HAT CREB-binding protein (CBP). Further, brief periods of infant exposure that do not affect subsequent maternal care are potentiated by Sodium Butyrate (SB), a drug that enhances experience-induced histone acetylation. These data suggest that histone acetylation promotes maternal responsiveness via transcription of genes that increase maternal responsiveness. This work has been supported by NIH T32 training grant # DK007646 and R01 MH057759.

Affiliation: University of Virginia
Keywords: maternal behavior, HDAC inhibitor

Do you think it or feel it? Language and neural activity reflect individual differences in emotion processing
Authors: Xiao-Fei Yang, Darby E. Saxbe, Larissa A. Borofsky, Maeve C. Murphy, and Mary Helen Immordino-Yang

Abstract: How do people describe their emotional states, and how does their word use reflect the underlying neural processing? This study explored the relationship between subjects’ word use when responding to emotional stories and their subsequent BOLD activity elicited by the same stories. We hypothesized that subjects’ use of cognitive words (words that reflect abstract thinking, such as “understand,” “know” and “wonder”) and body words (words that describe visceral sensations and body parts) would reflect two differing emotion processing strategies: one that relies more on abstract reasoning, and another that relies more on the feeling of the physical body during emotion. We expected these strategies to correlate with BOLD activity in brain regions involved in somatosensation, such as the somatosensory cortices (SI & SII), and self-reflection, such as the dorsal medial prefrontal cortex (dMPFC) and the posteromedial cortices (PMC, including precuneus and posterior cingulate cortex, PCC). During an emotion induction interview that preceded the scanning session, 28 subjects discussed their feelings about true stories designed to elicit specific social emotions; these included stories describing self-sacrificing or heroic behavior (admiration for virtue; AV); and stories of social exclusion or isolation (compassion for social pain; CSP). During the scanning session, the subjects viewed brief reminders of the stories and were asked to become as emotional as possible (see Immordino-Yang et al., 2009). Transcripts of subjects’ verbal responses during the interviews were analyzed using the quantitative word counting software program LIWC (Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count; Pennebaker, Booth and Francis, 2001) to generate word use frequencies for cognitive and body words. BOLD activity across the AV and CSP conditions was estimated for each individual and entered into group-level whole brain correlation analyses using cognitive and body word frequencies as regressors (SPM8). Consistent with our hypotheses, subjects who used more cognitive words tended to use fewer body words (Pearson’s rho = -.375, p < .025). Cognitive word use inversely correlated with activation in dMPFC, SI and SII, while body word use directly correlated with activations in dMPFC, posterior/inferior sector of precuneus/PCC and supramarginal gyrus (p < .005, cluster threshold of 10 voxels). The word use patterns and associated BOLD results support our hypothesis that individuals adopt different strategies during emotion processing: some engage in more cognitive, abstract reasoning, while others rely more on representing their physical body states.

Affiliations: Neuroscience Graduate Program, University of Southern California; Brain and Creativity Institute, University of Southern California; Department of Psychology, University of Southern California; Rossier School of Education, University of Southern California
Keywords: social emotion, language use, embodiment

Social dominance behavior and threat orienting in young adult monkeys is modulated by fluoxetine during early adolescence
Authors: Bo Zhang, Pamela Noble, Jeremy Kruger, Stephen Suomi, Daniel Pine, Eric Nelson

Abstract: Late childhood and early adolescence is a time when dramatic changes in social behavior occur. The peri-pubertal period is also a developmental period which sees a marked increase in the incidence of mood and anxiety disorders which are often associated with social behavior. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRI) such as fluoxetine are a common treatment for anxiety and mood disorders in both adults and children, and clinical trials have demonstrated their efficacy. However the effects of chronic SSRI administration on development have not been fully explored. In the present study, we assessed the effects of chronic fluoxetine treatment on social behavior of adolescent and young adult monkeys both during treatment and following a washout period. Thirty-two male rhesus monkeys were randomly assigned to either peer rearing (PR) or mother rearing (MR) conditions for the first 6 months of life. MR monkeys were reared with mothers and other peers in a large social group while PR monkeys were removed from their mothers soon after birth and reared with a small group of peers. At 6 months of life both groups had identical social housing conditions. Between 2-3 years of age half of each group was treated with fluoxetine 3mg/kg/day. Social behavior was assessed both during and after treatment with a series of exposures to a novel individual and varied rearing and treatment histories. Fluoxetine treatment significantly reduced the expression of dominance behaviors during treatment and this pattern persisted in the post-treatment period. In the post-treatment period, drug treated monkeys received more dominance displays by partner than untreated animals. Attention orienting to social threat stimuli was also assessed in the post-treatment period with eyetracking methodology, and fluoxetine was found to modulate threat orienting behavior as well. These results suggest that fluoxetine exposure during early adolescence may have long term consequences on threat orienting behavior and may influence the development of social behavior in rhesus monkeys.

Affiliations: National Institute of Mental Health, National Institute of Child Health and Human Development
Keywords: ssri, social dominance, development

Toward an Anthropological Theory of Mind (AToM) – Stanford Workshop Summary

This is the first in a series of posts covering cross-disciplinary research on theory of mind.

Last weekend a small, international gathering of twenty-seven anthropologists and psychologists took place at the Stanford Humanities Center, organized by Stanford anthropology professor Tanya Luhrmann  and Culture and Mind postdoctoral fellows Julia Cassaniti, and Jocelyn Marrow. The meeting was made possible by a gift from the Robert Lemelson Foundation.

Nestled under the dappled shade of oak trees, the center provided a beautiful setting for a relaxed yet animated discussion on the concept of theory of mind, including the possibility of cross-cultural, comparative research program. (See end of post for full list of participants.

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According to the hypothesis on which the meeting was based “there are cultural variations in the way minds are imagined, and . . . these variations have consequences for mental experience (broadly defined) and the nature of social interaction.” Invited speakers briefly summarized their work (papers were circulated in advance) but most of each session and many lively coffee-break conversations were devoted to exploring related questions and research opportunities.

The workshop opened on Thursday evening with a talk by anthropologist Rita Astuti (London School of Economics) covering the history of ToM and the challenges of cross-cultural, interdisciplinary work. Below is a summary of the Friday morning session on “interiority and boundedness,” featuring talks by anthropologists Joel Robbins (UC San Diego), Julia, and Tanya.

Theory of Mind

Theory of mind (ToM) was coined by primatologists David Premack and Guy Woodruff to refer to the ability of an individual to “impute mental states to himself and to others” (Premack & Woodruff, 1978; Call & Tomasello, 2008). The concept subsequently carried over to developmental psychology and neuroscience. Psychologists were interested in the emergence in young children of a capacity to attribute false beliefs to other persons (Wimmer & Perner, 1983; also referred to as the Sally-Anne test or S-AT). Neuroscientists began to explore some possible neural mechanisms of ToM (which critically “enables us to predict what others are going to do” [U. Frith & C. Frith, 2010] ) like imitation (eventually bolstered by the discovery of mirror neurons in macaques, which fired when observing an object-directed gesture, with the mirror neuron “system” thus appearing to mediate an understanding of others’ actions), as well as “precursor” mechanisms, like face processing, gaze monitoring, or detection of animacy and their dysfunctions (Hurley & Chater, 2005; Rizzolatti & Craighero, 2004; Iacoboni & Dapretto, 2006). A particularly influential 1985 paper for both research programs by Simon Baron-Cohen, Alan Leslie, and Uta Frith argued that children with autism lacked a theory of mind based on their difficulties with the false belief test (Baron-Cohen, Leslie, & Frith, 1985). (Links to research cited available at end of post.)

Currently, the mainstream definition in the psychiatric neuroscience literature  characterizes ToM as the cognitive (or “high level”) capacity to “mind read,” that is, “to attribute mental states like thoughts, beliefs, intentions, and feelings to oneself and others,” (Montag et al., 2011). But, as several attendees noted, some assumptions implicit in this sort of definition – e.g., the extent to which ToM is based on explicit inferences of internally held propositions – presume an understanding of mind which is western.  Anthropologists have long been aware that the western model of mind is not shared by all people. Those at the meeting had assembled to explore what they knew about the consequences of different models of mind for mental experience, developmental process, psychiatric illness, and the adults experience of inferring intentions.

AToM: Interiority and Boundedness

In the first talk of Friday’s session, anthropologist Joel Robbins (UC San Diego) discussed his research on the Urapmin of Papua New Guinea, who, although generally described as sociocentric or relational, have a very strong sense of a core self that is virtually unknowable to others. For the Urapmin, the heart is the seat of thoughts, feelings, and intentions, and it is believed “one cannot know what goes on in the heart of another person.” The Urapmin appear not to use speech as a vehicle for expressing thoughts, feelings, or intentions, so much so that the language lacks verbs like thank, apologize, promise, and lie, and they are distrustful of others’ speech. (Although persons’ mental states are opaque to one another, Joel was quick to distinguish this form of “innate” opacity – a core self doubly wrapped within the heart/body  – from the communicative opacity and non-expressivity cultivated by the Yap that Jason Throop would go on to describe in the afternoon session.) At the same time, according to Joel, the Urapmin regularly say that people “do what they want to do,” or “are driven by their hearts,” and they have a rich vocabulary for different kinds of emotions and thoughts that arise in the heart. This means that in the Urapmin case the belief that people cannot know what others are thinking and feeling does not, as some have predicted, correlate with a general lack of cultural elaboration of ideas about the contents of the mind and their importance in motivating action. Joel also said that in the 1970s all adults in the community converted to charismatic Christianity and consequently face conflicting demands from, on the one hand, a religion that requires sincerity in speech and honesty in the confession of one’s sins to God and, on the other, from a traditional belief in the impossibility of such kinds of communication.

After giving a brief summary, Joel provided two basic claims/research questions: (1) Assuming theories of mind shape the mental experience of those who hold them, how do we test the possibility that people are not reading the minds of others in interpreting what they say or how they act? (2) Just as cultural ideas about language connect to morality, sociality, ideas about selves, etc., we should explore the ways in which cultural theories of mind are connected in important ways to ideas in other domains. Joel felt he was on firmer ground with the second research program in terms of exploring the ramifications of an Urapminian theory of mind. For example, most people in Urapmin assume they are “innately” related to many others, rather than expecting relationships to built out of shared feelings and thoughts, and the unpredictability of speech is moderated by everyday gift exchanges, which “almost have the rhythm of conversations” (a promise, for example, is made via the bestowal of a small gift rather than conveyed verbally.)

After Tanya opened up the session to questions and comments, one of the attendees mentioned Vygotsky’s work on the connection between language development and thought, particularly how inner speech develops from hearing external speech followed by a stage of talking (or thinking) out loud – i.e., a process of internalizing what is heard – which is eventually inhibited. Children and adults continue to hear subvocalizations which are unintelligible to others, however, and which serve as a vehicle for thought. She wondered about the extent to which the Urapmin subvocalize, and “how they are construing subvocalization in inner speech, if it’s not thought.”

Joel was intrigued by the suggestion, but also noted the complexity of an investigation into subvocalization. Interestingly, he mentioned that when people “hear God,” when the Holy Spirit tells them something, they do not “hear a voice,” but rather they experience the Holy Spirit “as a certainty in my heart,” although Joel also said this was common for charismatics generally.

Linguistic anthropologist Bambi Schieffelin (New York University), who conducted research among the Bosavi of Papa New Guinea and said they share many of the same orientations and preferences, commented that when her 4-year-old son talked to himself, the Bosavi found it very peculiar, even “creepy.” She thought there was an interesting cultural possibility that speech among the Bosavi (as part of a particular language ideology) always requires an addressee. Cultural psychologist Hazel Markus (Stanford University) said that in East Asia – Japan Korea and Taiwan, specifically – the idea that speech is appropriate only in certain situations or that the mouth is the source of misfortune (or meaningless prattle in the case of a chatterbox) is very common. In Japan, if something really matters “you won’t say it”; in other words, thoughts and speech are not necessarily always closely aligned. Also, “you have to have another person before the self is “on,” she said. (This isn’t to say there isn’t a very clear sense of an interior “something,” which is important and a source of great, emotionally expressive literature in Japan, she said.)

The second talk by Julia Cassaniti, based on her research in a small community in Thailand, explored how Buddhist ideas are lived in everyday life. She described three key concepts: mindfulness, kwan, and karma. According to her position paper, “the concentration and focus of the mind [mindfulness] is both a goal and a representation of healthy minds and bodies.” When the mind is distracted, the implication is that our “souls” or “ghosts” (kwan) are scattered. Julia likened kwan to our understanding of “wits.” Keeping our minds (or wits) balanced and permeable in the sense of open to experiences and aware of (and wary of ) our own and others’ intentions (“out in the air”) keeps our mind/wits together. Karmic energy (“the energy of intentionality”), which is destabilizing, arises when the mind becomes fixed on particular ideas, desires, or goals that “shoot out from us.” Consequently, people are reluctant to hazard a guess about what another person might be thinking or feeling, because this presumes the other is possessed of a single, bounded, autonomous mind that is wholly separate from one’s own.

A participant wondered what the relationship was between what people tell you in an interview and what they may be doing in everyday life. Julia said her informants seemed to actively practice what they believed, when, say, they were confronted with a predicament like the loss of money. Referring to soul-calling ceremonies, in which a white string bracelet used to “keep one’s kwan together,” is attached to the wrist, Aparecida Vilaça (Museu Nacional/Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro) recalled a similar practice in Amazonia in which an object – a necklace of beads – is considered “outside but also inside.” If the necklace breaks apart, so does one’s identity or personality (the wearer “goes crazy”). Julia said the white-string bracelets weren’t necessarily used to hold something inside; they’re not permanent and when the string wears out, the bracelet is put in a river and floats away. Another participant, who was familiar with a different Buddhist practice, said that in that context the intentions of the practitioners are very strong, but the point is to not get too attached to them or too obsessed with moving in a particular direction. Julia seemed to feel that the idea of having intentions but just not becoming too attached to them might have a deleterious looping effect, but concerns with attachment resonated (she described a festival in which lanterns or little boats are set afloat as a reminder not to become too attached to worries or intentions). Regarding the different perceptions of the mind that can be gleaned from the many varieties of religious practice in Thailand, China, and the US, Hazel Markus noted how, in the West, the mind is perceived as influencing or making things happen in the world. But “effortfully striving for something may not always be the best way to make things happen, in fact it’s often problematic, “ she said, “and that’s what’s so difficult for Westerners to grasp.” Another participant wondered if kwan stays in one piece or disintegrates into separate pieces when it “wanders off.” Julia said it appeared to stay in one piece. But she also said kwan is sometimes referred to in the singular, sometimes in the plural in the literature. The lack of noun/verb inflection in the language makes it difficult to determine. She felt, however, kwan was a concept best understood in the plural.

The theme of the final talk of the session by Tanya Luhrmann was how theory of mind changes mental experience. The talk focused on American experientially oriented evangelical Christians, who live in a world dominated by a “Westernized, Christianized, secularized theory of mind.” Three important features of this model are: (1) a wall between mind and world, which spirits cannot cross; (2) the interior word is important (i.e., “emotions and feelings count for something, they have causal consequences, and can make you sick”; (3) what’s in the mind is not real “in the way that tables and chairs are real.” Evangelical Christians hold a different theory of mind, in which God can cross the boundaries of the mind, and in which what is in the mind is real—but in a different manner than tables and chairs. These Christians must learn to adopt this new theory of mind. They cultivate a personal, interactive relationship with God, who is perceived as a person very much like oneself. The churches essentially teach a theory of mind in which individuals attend to the everyday flow of stream of consciousness and learn to “cherry pick out” particular thoughts, mental images, and feelings. Those that feel different, spontaneous, or “not me,” are identified as potentially emanating from God. Learning to orient to certain kinds of internal sensory information, asking for guidance from God on the most mundane matters of everyday life, and “daydreaming” about God as a continuous, warm, supportive presence (and conversation partner) is a kind of attention training paradigm for learning to respond to life’s bigger questions/challenges according to what God tells you to do. Tanya said a conflict arises in terms of being taught to orient to inner experience and cultivate an everyday relationship with God while, at the same time, not considering what occurs in the mind real. The result, Tanya said, is a kind of oscillating back and forth between the (fictional) mind/(real/fictional) world and the emergence of “a third (ontological) domain of reality” (“real but different”).

Tanya then described an experiment in which she randomized people into different prayer practices; those engaged in an imaginative prayer practice, which included daydreaming about God (vs. a control group engaged in Bible study) improved their mental imagery vividness and salience and their ability to use mental imagery and increased the likeliness of unusual sensory experiences. Many participants in this group also said “God became more real to them.” Based on these results, Tanya said she was interested in the idea of a cross-cultural research program that would look at dimensions of the mind like interiority, boundedness, whether the content of the mind is real, etc., in order to ask the following questions:  What is the significance given to inner thought? What is the inner-voice dialogue? What is the significance given to inner sensory experience, what kinds of experience count, what about unusual sensory experiences? Do dreams matter, if so, how? And what are the consequences of these different emphases on mental experience? Tanya also felt Aparecida’s comment about the idea of objects containing the mind would make an important research query.

In response to a participant’s question about the purpose of appealing to God on mundane matters Tanya said it was a way to make what you imagine God to be real (in terms of a real voice coming from outside your head). Evangelicals have “to get God across the boundary of the mind.” They have to get “God outside and real,” she said. (Tanya also described another set of practices by evangelicals, an effort to map emotional experiences onto God or to map God onto themselves so that they become more able to experience a sense of being loved by God.) Regarding Tanya’s idea for a cross-cultural study, another participant suggested not just asking about effects, in some secondary sense, but exploring the conflict among, e.g., the Urapmin, between their ToM and a Christian God whose intentions are knowable and can be expressed verbally. (“Why do you trust God’s words?”)

Tanya also commented that the American evangelical movement is a representation of God based on a specific representation of the American mind. She said there was a “buyer’s market” in God concepts designed for the secular mind because there is an acute awareness that people don’t necessarily believe in God. Hazel Markus felt an under-explored areas was the role of Protestant Christianity in giving life to an independent self, or form of agency, “that really underlies most of our theorizing.” Hazel thought this model of self wasn’t working for evangelical Christians, who may be seeking a more relational model (“the other was too harsh and too interior”). Tanya agreed, saying the evangelical movement (particularly the emphasis on personal experience) was a direct response to secularism.

Regarding the idea of a “buyer’s market,” Doug Hollan (UCLA) wondered how we can distinguish between a process of self selection (where a person has a certain set of proclivities, like hearing voices, and shops around for accommodating churches) vs. the argument of being socialized into certain practices that focus on “hearing” God. Tanya mentioned previous work using the Tellegen Absorption Scale in which she found a close relationship between a proclivity for absorption (according to the scale) and reporting an unusual sensory experience. Interestingly, referring to the randomized prayer practice trial she described earlier, absorption did not predict whether you experienced God as a person (being assigned to the imaginative prayer practice did) or whether you heard God, although it did predict lifetime report of hearing God. Another participant suggested keeping in mind the significance of individual differences in terms of temperament (or different attentional capacities or differences on the absorption scale).

Several questions emerged during the general discussion. One participant again brought up the question of how to explore what really happens in everyday life (vs. what the interviewee reports) in the sense of trying to understand what kinds of moments in life these cultural philosophies of mind are for (e.g., just those instances in which intentions are thwarted?) How can this be explored more systematically, that is, other than, say, looking at examples of reported speech? Also, in communities that follow different practices, how much of a difference is there in terms of the way an individual thinks, or theorizes, about his/her own and others’ mental states and anticipate others’ actions? Joel suggested that, at least among the Urapmin, their particular ToM operates constantly, it’s not just an explanatory model. Taking the Urapmin as an example, John Lucy suggested looking at ToM in terms of an overall system of social behavior rather than as a localized set of practices. How the culture acknowledges interior states (or doesn’t), would be a component. As the session drew to a close, the conversation continued to flow around these and other intriguing questions.


Call, J., & Tomasello, M. (2008). Does the chimpanzee have a theory of mind? 30 years later. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 121(5), 187–192. doi:10.1016/j.tics.2008.02.010

On the 30th anniversary of Premack and Woodruff’s seminal paper asking whether chimpanzees have a theory of mind, we review recent evidence that suggests in many respects they do, whereas in other respects they might not. Specifically, there is solid evidence from several different experimental paradigms that chimpan- zees understand the goals and intentions of others, as well as the perception and knowledge of others. Never- theless, despite several seemingly valid attempts, there is currently no evidence that chimpanzees understand false beliefs. Our conclusion for the moment is, thus, that chimpanzees understand others in terms of a percep- tion–goal psychology, as opposed to a full-fledged, human-like belief–desire psychology.

Frith, U., & Frith, C. (2010). The social brain: Allowing humans to boldly go where no other species has been. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 365(1537),165–176.

The biological basis of complex human social interaction and communication has been illuminated through a coming together of various methods and disciplines. Among these are comparative studies of other species, studies of disorders of social cognition and developmental psychology. The use of neuroimaging and computational models has given weight to speculations about the evolution of social behaviour and culture in human societies. We highlight some networks of the social brain relevant to two-person interactions and consider the social signals between interacting partners that activate these networks. We make a case for distinguishing between signals that automatically trigger interaction and cooperation and ostensive signals that are used deliberately. We suggest that this ostensive signalling is needed for ‘closing the loop’ in two-person interactions, where the partners each know that they have the intention to communicate. The use of deliberate social signals can serve to increase reputation and trust and facilitates teaching. This is likely to be a critical factor in the steep cultural ascent of mankind.

Hurly, S., & Chater, N. Eds. (2005). Perspectives on imitation. (Vols. 1–2). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Iacoboni, M., & Dapretto, M. (2006). The mirror neuron system and the consequences of its dysfunction. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 7, 942–951. doi:10.1038/nrn2024

The discovery of premotor and parietal cells known as mirror neurons in the macaque brain that fire not only when the animal is in action, but also when it observes others carrying out the same actions provides a plausible neurophysiological mechanism for a variety of important social behaviours, from imitation to empathy. Recent data also show that dysfunction of the mirror neuron system in humans might be a core deficit in autism, a socially isolating condition. Here, we review the neurophysiology of the mirror neuron system and its role in social cognition and discuss the clinical implications of mirror neuron dysfunction.

Montag, C., Neuhaus, K., Lehmann, A., Krüger, K., Dziobek, I., Heekeren, J. R., Heinz, A., & Gallinat, J.  (9/2011). Subtle deficits of cognitive theory of mind in unaffected first-degree relatives of schizophrenia patients. European Archives of Psychiatry and Clinical Neuroscience. Advance online publication. doi 10.1007/s00406-011-0250-2

Alterations of theory of mind (ToM) and empathy were implicated in the formation of psychotic experiences, and deficits in psychosocial functioning of schizophrenia patients. Inspired by concepts of neurocognitive endophenotypes, the existence of a distinct, potentially neurobiologically based social-cognitive vulnerability marker for schizophrenia is a matter of ongoing debate. The fact that previous research on social-cognitive deficits in individuals at risk yielded contradictory results may partly be due to an insufficient differentiation between qualitative aspects of ToM. Thirty-four unaffected first-degree relatives of schizophrenia patients (21 parents, 8 siblings, 5 children; f/m: 30/4; mean age: 48.1 ± 12.7 years) and 34 controls subjects (f/m: 25/9; mean age: 45.9 ± 10.9 years) completed the ‘Movie for the Assessment of Social Cognition’-a video-based ToM test-and an empathy questionnaire (Interpersonal Reactivity Index, IRI). Outcome parameters comprised (1) ‘cognitive’ versus ’emotional’ ToM, (2) error counts representing ‘undermentalizing’ versus ‘overmentalizing’, (3) empathic abilities and (4) non-social neurocognition. MANCOVA showed impairments in cognitive but not emotional ToM in the relatives’ group, when age, gender and neurocognition were controlled for. Relatives showed elevated error counts for ‘undermentalizing’ but not for ‘overmentalizing’. No alterations were detected in self-rated dimensions of empathy. Of all measures of ToM and empathy, only the IRI subscale ‘fantasy’ was associated with measures of psychotic risk, i.e. a history of subclinical delusional ideation. The present study confirmed subtle deficits in cognitive, but not emotional ToM in first-degree relatives of schizophrenia patients, which were not explained by global cognitive deficits. Findings corroborate the assumption of distinct social-cognitive abilities as an intermediate phenotype for schizophrenia.

Rizzolatti, G., &  Craighero, L.  (2004). The mirror-neuron system. Annual Review of Neuroscience, 27, 169–192. doi:10.1146/annurev.neuro.27.070203.144230.PMID 15217330

A category of stimuli of great importance for primates, humans in particular, is that formed by actions done by other individuals. If we want to survive, we must understand the actions of others. Furthermore, without action understanding, social organization is impossible. In the case of humans, there is another faculty that depends on the observation of others’ actions: imitation learning. Unlike most species, we are able to learn by imitation, and this faculty is at the basis of human culture. In this review we present data on a neurophysiological mechanism—the mirror-neuron mechanism—that appears to play a fundamental role in both action understanding and imitation. We describe first the functional properties of mirror neurons in monkeys. We review next the characteristics of the mirror-neuron system in humans. We stress, in particular, those properties specific to the human mirror-neuron system that might explain the human capacity to learn by imitation. We conclude by discussing the relationship between the mirror-neuron system and language.

Premack, D. G., &  Woodruff, G. (1978). Does the chimpanzee have a theory of mind? Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 1, 515–526.

An individual has a theory of mind if he imputes mental states to himself and others. A system of inferences of this kind is properly viewed as a theory because such states are not directly observable, and the system can be used to make predictions about the behavior of others. As to the mental states the chimpanzee may infer, consider those inferred by our own species, for example, purpose or intention, as well as knowledge, belief, thinking, doubt, guessing, pretending, liking, and so forth. To determine whether or not the chimpanzee infers states of this kind, we showed an adult chimpanzee a series of videotaped scenes of a human actor struggling with a variety of problems. Some problems were simple, involving inaccessible food bananas vertically or horizontally out of reach, behind a box, and so forth as in the original Kohler problems; others were more complex, involving an actor unable to extricate himself from a locked cage, shivering because of a malfunctioning heater, or unable to play a phonograph because it was unplugged. With each videotape the chimpanzee was given several photographs, one a solution to the problem, such as a stick for the inaccessible bananas, a key for the locked up actor, a lit wick for the malfunctioning heater. The chimpanzee’s consistent choice of the correct photographs can be understood by assuming that the animal recognized the videotape as representing a problem, understood the actor’s purpose, and chose alternatives compatible with that purpose.

Wimmer, H. & Perner, J. (1983). Beliefs about beliefs: Representation and constraining function of wrong beliefs in young children’s understanding of deception. Cognition, 13, 41–68.

Understanding of another person’s wrong belief requires explicit representation of the wrongness of this person’s belief in relation to one’s own knowledge. Three to nine year old children’s understanding of two sketches was tested. In each sketch subjects observed how a protagonist put an object into a location x and then witnessed that in the absence of the protagonist the object was transferred from x to location y. Since this transfer came as a surprise they had to assume that the protagonist still believed that the object was in x. Subjects had to indicate where the protagonist will look for the object at his return. None of the 3–4-year old, 57% of 4–6-year old, and 86% of 6–9-year old children pointed correctly to location x in both sketches. Of the many cases where 4–6-year olds made an error they failed in only about 20% to remember the initial location correctly. As a test of the stability of children’s representation of the protagonist’s wrong belief the sketches continued with a statement about the protagonist’s intention to either deceive an antagonist or truthfully inform a friend about the object’s location. Independent of age, of those children who correctly thought that the protagonist would search in x, 85% of the time they also correctly thought that he would direct his antagonist to location y and his friend to location x. This shows that once children can represent a person’s beliefs they can constrain their interpretation of this person’s stated intentions to the person’s beliefs. In a more story-like situation another group of children had to infer a deceptive plan from the depiction of a goal conflict between two story characters and one character’s expedient utterance. At the age of 4–5 years children correctly judged this utterance as a lie only 28% of the time while 5–6-year olds did so 94% of the time. These results suggest that around the ages of 4 to 6 years the ability to represent the relationship between two or more person’s epistemic states emerges and becomes firmly established.

List of Participants

Rita Astuti, Professor, Department of Anthropology, London School of Economics

Lera Boroditsky, Assistant Professor, Department of Psychology, Stanford University

Luke Butler, Graduate student, Psychology, Stanford University

Julia Cassaniti, Culture and Mind Postdoctoral Fellow, Anthropology, Stanford University

Eve Danzinger, Associate Professor in Anthropology, University of Virginia

Suzanne Gaskins, Associate Professor of Psychology, Northeastern Illinois University

Dedre Gentner, Alice Gabrielle Twight Professor, Department of Psychology, Northwestern University

Kathyrn Geurts, Associate Professor of Anthropology, Hamline College

Alexa Hagerty, Graduate student, Anthropology, Stanford University

Douglas Hollan, Professor of Anthropology, University of California, Los Angeles

Graham Jones, Assistant Professor of Anthropology, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Michelle Karnes, Assistant Professor in the Department of English, Stanford University

John Lucy, William Benton Professor Department of Comparative Human Development, Department of Psychology, University of Chicago

Tanya Luhrmann, Watkins University Professor in Anthropology (and Psychology, by courtesy) Stanford University

Ellen Markman, Lewis M. Terman Professor of Psychology, Stanford University

Hazel Markus, Davis-Brack Professor in the Behavioral Sciences, Stanford University, Department of Psychology

Giulia Mazza, Graduate student, Anthropology, Stanford University

Jocelyn Marrow, Culture and Mind Postdoctoral Fellow, Anthropology, Stanford University

Joel Robbins, Professor of Anthropology, University of California, San Diego

Barbara Rogoff, University of California, Santa Cruz Foundation Distinguished Professor of Psychology

Sonya Pritzker, Assistant Researcher and Clinical Specialist at the UCLA Center for East-West Medicine

Danilyn Rutherford, Associate Professor in Anthropology, University of California, Santa Cruz

Bambi Schieffelin, Collegiate Professor; Professor of Anthropology, New York University

Rupert Stasch, Associate Professor, University of California, San Diego

Allen Tran, Graduate Student, Anthropology, University of  California, San Diego

Jason Throop, Associate Professor of Anthropology, University of California, Los Angeles

Aparecida Vilaça, Associate Professor in the Postgraduate Program in Social Anthropology, Museu Nacional/Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro

Note on UCLA Social Neuroscience Lab re Genetic Underpinnings of Psychological “Resources”

Below is the abstract and link to online publication.  One of the research programs of this lab is the integration of genetics, development, psychology, and socioemotional functioning.

Shimon Saphire-Bernstein, S., Way, B. M., Kim, H. S., Sherman, D. K., & Taylor, S. E. (2011)Oxytocin receptor gene (OXTR) is related to psychological resources. PNAS, 108(37). Advance online publication. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1113137108

Lab website: http://taylorlab.psych.ucla.edu/index.htm

Psychological resources—optimism, mastery, and self-esteem—buffer the deleterious effects of stress and are predictors of neurophysiological and psychological health-related outcomes. These resources have been shown to be highly heritable, yet the genetic basis for this heritability remains unknown. Here, we report a link between the oxytocin receptor (OXTR) SNP rs53576 and psychological resources, such that carriers of the “A” allele have lower levels of optimism, mastery, and self-esteem, relative to G/G homozygotes. OXTR was also associated with depressive symptomatology. Mediation analysis indicates that the effects of OXTR on depressive symptoms may be largely mediated by the influence of OXTR on psychological resources.

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 s4sn.org 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.