Nina Slanevskaya. Interdisciplinary Neuroscience




Social Neurosciences

Social neuroscience is an interdisciplinary field devoted to understanding how biological systems implement social processes and behavior. Humans are fundamentally a social species, rather than individualists and they create social structures that range from families and groups to cities, civilizations, and cultures. These emergent structures evolved hand in hand with human neural and hormonal mechanisms. These structures were meant to help human beings to survive, reproduce, and care for offsprings sufficiently long so that their offsprings might survive too to reproduce.


Theoretical Propositions on Brain and Mind used in Social Neurosciences

The main theoretical propositions on brain and mind used in social neurosciences can be grouped in the following way: (1) neurogenesis, neuroplasticity, and memorization; (2) inborn empathic reaction, mirror neurons, and the ability of understanding what the other man can feel and think, in other words, the ability of creating the Theory of Mind (ToM).
The first group - neurogenesis, neuroplasticity, and memorization – is connected with the ability of the brain to change. Neurogenesis helps to restore some quantity of neurons instead of those which were destroyed.
Neuroplasticity is important for the transfer of the function from some neurons, which were damaged or stopped functioning by some reason, to other neurons and also to teach neurons to function more or, perhaps, less intensely than usual. Memorization is the consolidation of new patterns of neuropaths where neuroplasticity plays an important role.
The second group - inborn empathic reaction, mirror neurons, and the Theory of Mind (ToM) – is connected with the involuntary reaction of a healthy brain to social surrounding.
Mirror neurons in one’s brain reflect the work of neurons in the other man’s brain if one observes the other man’s movements and emotions.
The empathic reaction, as many researchers suppose, is based on the mirror neurons. When a man sees that someone is being hurt, this observing man has the activation of approximately the same areas of neurons in his own brain as though he were hurt too. Such an inborn reaction as empathy leads to sympathy and is important for social interaction.
The Theory of Mind (ToM) is connected with both mirror neurons and empathic reaction. ToM demonstrates a human ability of understanding and guessing the thoughts and intentions of the other man. You create your own theory about the mind of another man on the basis of your own experience.
All above-mentioned biological and psychic phenomena characterize all normal people with a healthy brain, and they are inborn.

Mirror neurons. At the beginning of the 1990s, Rizzolatti and his colleagues discovered a special class of neurons in the frontal cortex of the macaque monkey, which got activated when monkeys observed the actions of an experimenter who manipulated with objects (Rizzolatti et al., 1996). These neurons were called mirror neurons because they mirroredthe observed actions at the neuronal level. The mirror neurons are located in those areas of the brain where visual, motor and emotional states merge. The networks of mirror neurons are considered to be in the parietal lobe, Broca’s area, the premotor cortex of the frontal lobe and the superior temporal sulcus of the temporal lobe (Christian, 2008; Rizzolatti, Fogassi, Gallese, 2006). Our mirror neurons are involved in observing movements and emotions of other people, and this reaction is automatic (Hass-Cohen, 2008; Buccino et al., 2004). If someone eats something sour and winces, an observing person involuntarily winces. Even the diminishing pupil size is mirrored by the observer’s own pupil size (Harrison, Singer, Rotshtein, Dolan, Critchley, 2006). Ramachandran asserts that the significance of the discovery of mirror neurons for psychology is equal to the discovery of DNA for biology: the mirror neurons can provide the uniform framework for the explanation of many mental operations and capabilities, which have been inexplicable so far (Ramachandran, 2000).
While mirror neurons help us to copy movements and acquire new skills, our empathic reaction, and the Theory of Mind play an important role in social communication.

Empathic reaction and the Theory of Mind. The Theory of Mind (ToM) is a human ability toguess what the other man thinks and feels in certain circumstances (Christian, 2008; Frith, C.D., Frith, U., 1999). Meanwhile, the empathic reaction is a human ability to feel what the other feels (Christian, 2008; Gallese, 2003; Botvinick, Jha, Bylsma, Fabian, Solomon, Prkachin, 2005; Singer, Frith, 2005). Both the abilities are inborn, automatic, and unconscious. Many processes and neuronal networks engaged in ToM are similar to those that form the emphatic reaction, though there are some peculiarities.
Analysing the literature on empathy and Theory of Mind Matthew Lieberman and Tania Singer points out two main hypotheses (Lieberman, 2007; Singer, 2006):
(1) empathy and ToM must have some neuronal mechanism; our own experience is the basis for both the empathic reaction and the construction of the Theory of Mind. It could be impossible to understand other people without our own experience;
(2) empathy and ToM are based on mirror neurons. It is the mirror neurons which provide us with the ability of automatic reflection of mental and emotional states of observed people (Gallese, Goldman, 1998).

However, the discovery of mirror neurons does not answer the question what is the mechanism of the transition of the other’s sensory experience into our sensory experience without the irritation of peripheral neurons that transmit the command to the brain about sensory stimulation (mirror neurons) (Singer, 2006). Or how can someone’s feeling of sadness transfer into our knowledge of it if we are not sad at all (empathic reaction)? Or how can psychopaths easily guess the intention of the other one and know about the feelings and emotions of the other one without feeling the same by themselves (Theory of Mind)? What are the mechanisms?


Ontology and epistemolgy in social neurosciences

Ontology can be foundationalist (a phenomenon exists independently of our imagination and perception of it, it is “out there”) and anti-foundationalist (we do not believe that this phenomenon exists independently because all social phenomena are socially constructed and determined by the time or other circumstances influencing our interpretation) (Marsh, Furlong, 2002).
If a religious man believes that God punishes people for their evil actions and explains some social phenomenon as God’s punishment, he has foundationalist ontology. His ontological foundation is his belief that God exists “out there” independently of anyone’s desire and punishes people for misbehaviour. His further study of the social phenomenon will be based on this belief, and he will choose the matching epistemology for proving that it is, indeed, so.
The categorization of epistemological approaches can be the following:
(1) positivist (we can establish real world through empirical observation like in natural sciences using methods of natural sciences: collecting observable facts, using statistics, and arriving at some conclusion about the causal relationship between one social phenomenon and the other one; this causal relationship will be called a law, which can be used for predicting a similar phenomenon in the future); (2) interpretivist (people are affected by the social constructions of “reality” and one can never find laws governing social relations, one can only compare different interpretations made by people in the course of history and choose the most suitable and closest to the reality);
(3) structuralist (it combines a positivist approach, i.e. direct observation, causal relationship and predictive models, but it highlights the existence of structure, which can be unobservable, but which can produce a crucial effect upon the observable events, so just collecting observable facts will not help to find causal relationship, one should try to find the structure first). Marsh and Furlong use the term “realist” instead of “structuralist” epistemology, but their realist epistemology presupposes the existence of structure, so the term “structuralist” will make the things clearer.

There is obvious difference between social life and natural phenomena. People analyze, think over, improve, or worsen social relations. They can change social structure, but cannot change physical laws of nature. Social structure depends on people’s activities, and it is shaped by people. A religious man with foundationalist ontology while studying, for example, social conflicts will try to find the connection between the faith in God and the events in a human life. He would probably use a structuralist approach where the lack of faith is a structure, which determines social conflicts, and then he would calculate the observable facts, show causal relationship, and predict future events.

Because neuroeconomics, for example, is an interdisciplinary field it is also important to know what the ontological position of a neuroeconomist is upon mind and brain. Does he think that first comes the activation of neurons and then a thought (materialist position), or vice versa, first comes a thought and then the activation of neurons and that there are two substances – mind and brain (dualist position), or perhaps, all matter has consciousness of its own (panpsychism), or all matter has consciousness coming from God (pantheism).
The chosen ontology on brain and mind will demand a certain epistemology, which will lead to the choice of the suitable methodology (principles of study) and methods fitting this methodology.

(in Nina Slanevskaya “Brain, Mind and Social factors”, St.Petersburg, Centre for Interdisciplinary Neurosciences”, 2014)

- Botvinick, M., Jha, A.P., Bylsma, L.M., Fabian, S.A., Solomon, P.E., Prkachin, K.M. (2005) “Viewing Facial Expressions of Pain Engages Cortical Areas Involved in the Direct Experience of Pain” in Neuroimage, 25: 312-19.
- Buccino, G., Binkofski, F., Riggio, L. (2004) “The Mirror Neuron System and Action Recognition” in Brain and Language, 89: 370-376.
- Christian, D. (2008) “The Cortex: Regulation of Sensory and Emotional Experience” in Noah Hass-Cohen and Richard Carr (eds.) Art Therapy and Clinical Neuroscience, London and Philadelphia, Jessica Kingsley Publishers: 62-75.
- Frith, C.D., Frith, U. (1999) “Interacting Minds: A Biological Basis” in Science, Vol. 286, No. 5445: 1692-1695.
- Gallese, V. (2003) “The Roots of Empathy: The Shared Manifold Hypothesis and the Neural Basis of Intersubjectivity” in Psychopathology, 36: 171-180.
- Gallese, V., Goldman, A. (1998) “Mirror Neurons and the Simulation Theory of Mind-Reading” in Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 2(12): 493-501.
- Harrison, N., Singer, T., Rotshtein, P., Dolan, R., Critchley, H. (2006) “Pupillary Contagion: Central Mechanisms Engaged in Sadness Processing” in SCAN, 1: 5-7.
- Hass-Cohen, N. (2008) “CREATE: Art Therapy Relational Neuroscience Principles (ATR-N)” in Noah Hass-Cohen and Richard Carr (eds.) Art Therapy and Clinical Neuroscience, London and Philadelphia, Jessica Kingsley Publishers: 283- 307.
- Lieberman, M. (2007) “Social Cognitive Neuroscience: A Review of Core Processes” in The Annual Review of Psychology, 58: 259-289.
- Marsh, D., Furlong, P. (2002) “A Skin not a Sweater: Ontology and Epistemology in Political Science” in D. Marsh and G. Stoker (eds.) Theory and Methods in Political Science, New York, Palgrave Macmillan: 17-41.
- Ramachandran, V.S. (2000) “Mirror Neurons and Imitation Learning as the Driving Force Behind “the Great Leap Forward” in Human Evolution (website).
- Rizzolatti, G., Fadiga, L., Gallese, V., Fogassi, L. (1996) “Premotor Cortex and the Recognition of Motor Actions” in Cognitive Brain Research, 3(2): 131-141.
- Rizzolatti, G., Fogassi, L., Gallese, V. (2006) “Mirrors in the Mind” in Scientific American, 295 (5): 54-61.
- Singer, T. (2006) “The Neuronal Basis and Ontogeny of Empathy and Mind Reading: Review of Literature and Implications for Future Research” in Neuroscience and Biobehavioural Reviews, 30: 855-863.
- Singer, T., Frith, C. (2005) “The Painful Side of Empathy” in Nature Neuroscience, Vol. 8, No. 7: 845-846.
- Stout, L.A. (2008) “Taking Conscience Seriously” in Paul J. Zak (ed.) Moral Markets. The Critical Role of Values in the Economy, Princeton University Press, Princeton and Oxford: 157-172.





Nina Slanevskaya. Interdisciplinary Neuroscience

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