Nina Slanevskaya. Interdisciplinary Neuroscience



in Nina Slanevskaya "Brain, Mind, and Society", Part 2, 2012 (in Russian)

Neurogenesis (in Russian)

Neuroplasticity of the brain (in Russian)

Memorization (in Russian)

Mirror neurons (in Russian)

Empathy (in Russian)

Theory of Mind (ToM) (in Russian)





Social Neurosciences

Neuroscience is the scientific study of the nervous system. Neuroscience unites under its umbrella many scientific disciplines such as molecular biology, genetics, chemistry besides a traditional neuroanatomy, neurology, neurophysiology. The goal of neuroscience is to understand the processes taking place both at the level of separate neurons and at the level of neuron networks, which lead to different psychic processes: thinking, emotions, consciousness. Thus, according to this goal neuroscientists study the nervous system at different levels of the organization beginning with molecular and finishing with the study of consciousness, creativity and social behaviour. Recently, there has been an upsurge of interest from many allied disciplines: philosophy, economics, political science, physics, computer science and etc. New disciplines appeared such as neuroehthics, neuroeconomics, neurotheology, neuromarketing, neuropolitical science, neurosocilology, etc. So neuroscience has become interdisciplinary science indeed.
Social neuroscience is an interdisciplinary field devoted to understanding how biological systems implement social processes and behavior, and to using biological concepts and methods to inform and refine theories of social processes and behavior. Humans are fundamentally a social species, rather than individualists and they create emergent organizations beyond the individual - structures that range from families and groups to cities, civilizations, and cultures. These emergent structures evolved hand in hand with neural and hormonal mechanisms to support them because the consequent social behaviors helped these organisms survive, reproduce, and care for offspring sufficiently long that they too survived 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 mirrored the 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 to guess 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).

The neuroscientists supporting the first hypothesis object to the neuroscientistssupporting the second hypothesis saying that imitation can take place without understanding, and that, perhaps, mirror neurons play an important role only in nonverbal communication (gestures, the expression of the face, the position of the body).
Unfortunately, as Singer remarks, 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?

- 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.
- 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.
(in Nina Slanevskaya “Brain, Mind, and Social Factors”, St.Petersburg, Centre for Interdisciplinary Neuroscience, 2014)


Ontology and epistemolgy in social neurosciences (the analysis of “Homo Economicus” in neuroeconomics)

A human, according to the mainstream economic theory of Rational choice, on which the economic and social system is based in many countries, is a self-interested rational actor consistently maximizing his profit. Criticizing this definition, the Nobel laureate Amartya Sen argues that consistency, which is supposed to characterize rationality, can characterize irrationality as well if a person consistently continues doing the wrong things to achieve his aim; rationality cannot serve as an equivalent to maximization of self-interest either. “To consider universal selfishness as a requirement of rationality is patently absurd” (Sen, 2005: 16). However, mainstream economic theory considers the behaviour irrational if the actor rejects the maximization of his self-interest in decision making due to moral values and emotions. Meanwhile cognitive neuroscience declares that no one can escape moral thinking and emotions: the structures of the human brain typically involved in moral thinking are constantly engaged in the process of decision making as well as the structures responsible for emotions. Therefore, we can conclude that there are no purely self-interested rational people unless they have some pathology of the brain. Then why do we use the Rational choice theory for constructing economic system of our society if the majority of people have a normally functioning brain?

Lynn Stout points out that mainstream economics substituted Homo Sapiens by “Homo Economicus” (Stout, 2008). Stout compares the symptoms of sociopathology from the American “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders” (2000: 701-702) with the basic characteristics of a human in mainstream economics. She comes to the conclusion that “Homo Economicus” serving as a basis for mainstream economics and our economic system is a sociopath, who has no pity or remorse, and who wants to lie, cheat, break his promises, neglect duties, take advantage and exploit. The Manual says that an individual is considered a sociopath if he or she shows three of the following seven characteristics (Stout, 2008: 159):
“1. Failure to conform to social norms with respect to lawful behaviors as indicated by repeatedly performing acts that are grounds for arrest; 2. Deceitfulness, as indicated by repeated lying, use of aliases, or conning others for personal profit or pleasure; 3. Impulsivity, or failure to plan ahead; 4. Irritability and aggressiveness, as indicated by repeated physical fights or assaults; 5. Reckless disregard for safety of self or others; 6. Consistent irresponsibility, as indicated by repeated failure to sustain steady work or honor financial obligations; 7. Lack of remorse, as indicated by being indifferent to or rationalizing having hurt, mistreated, or stolen from another.”
Homo Economicus has five of the seven symptoms of sociopathology:
“Lack of remorse (item 7)? Obviously; why would Homo Economicus feel bad just because he hurt or misled another, if he advanced his own material welfare?
Irresponsibility and reckless disregard for the safety of others (items 5 and 6)? Homo Economicus feels responsible for, and cares about, no one but himself.
Deceitfulness (item 2)? Homo Economicus is happy to lie any time it serves his interests. Failure to conform to social norms with respect to lawful behaviors (item 1)? Whenever and wherever the police aren’t around describes Homo Economicus” (Stout, 2008: 159).

Here we have come to the question of ontology (what exists?) and epistemology (how can we know that it exists?). Does  the theory of Rational Choice tell the truth and is Homo Economicus a norm? How can we know that what we know is true?
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 are reflexive. They 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.
If a neuroeconomist believes that all people belong to the Homo Economicus type, he has foundationalist ontology. Evidently, his choice of epistemology will be either positivist or structuralist. If he chose positivist epistemology to prove that he is right he would collect the observable facts of human behaviour coinciding with the description of Homo Economicus and would count the number of people who behave like that out of 1000, or more people. Then he would make experiments combining the reaction of participants on some economic situation and the tomography of the brain during these experiments, or he would use neurochemical analyses or some other tests. He would try to find the neurophysiological and neurochemical relevant data confirming that all normal people, indeed, behave according to the description of Homo Economicus.
If a neuroeconomist believes that Homo Economicus does not exist in nature, he has anti-foundationalist ontology. He will choose either structuralist or interpretivist epistemological approach. According to the interpretivist epistemological approach it does not matter if Homo Economicus is a natural creature or a social construct. What is important and worth studying is how we interpret Homo Economicus and Homo Sapiens; why the society has decided that the majority of people are of a Homo Economicus type; and what neuro characteristics we ascribe to both of them. He would make similar experiments but would not bother himself with statistics and establishing the true knowledge because his task would be to explain societal understanding what is normal and abnormal for human behaviour.
If a neuroeconomist chooses structuralist epistemology he will have to find a structure first, which produces a crucial effect on the observable phenomena, and he will have to try altering the structure to see if it, indeed, influences the events and to what degree, calculate the observable facts, deduce a law and create a predictive model.

I would choose foundationalist ontology in this case. I believe that there are some people, who have natural characteristics of Homo Economicus and typical neurophysiological work of brain, but they are a small portion of the total population. Their psychological characteristics are, evidently, close to sociopathology. There can be some other people (the second category of people) who have such characteristics, but the explanation will be different: it is the influence of the structure. My epistemological approach would be structuralist. It is the existing socio-politico-economic structure that affects people and forces them to acquire sociopathological characteristics of Homo Economicus due to: (1) the neuroplasticity of the brain (neuroplasticity means that the functioning neuropatterns and the physical characteristics of neurons change if the neurons repeat the same activation regularly under regular social circumstances); (2) mirror neurons (they are special neurons in the brain, which get activated involuntarily if we see other people moving, or expressing their feelings); (3) empathy (we catch involuntarily the feelings of the observed people, and approximately the same brain structures get activated); (4) Theory of Mind (TOM) (people have the ability of guessing, or building “the theory of mind”, i.e. what the other one thinks about, and how he will react and feel if we do certain things); (5) genetic expression of some genes, which “keep silence” until some social circumstances arise.
As I said before, this second category of people acquires the characteristics of Homo Economicus as a result of socio-politico-economic structure. Thus, the calculation of the number of people with the characteristics of Homo Economicus will not help to clarify the picture and to answer the question whether all people are naturally Homo Economicus. The experiments should envisage the influence of the structure.

Because neuroeconomics 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.

A typical layout of present neurostudies in neuroeconomics is the following:
Materialist ideology: materialist position on brain and mind (there are only neurons in the brain; thoughts follow the activation of neurons and can be considered as a new property of activated neurons).
Foundationalist ontology: the characteristics of Homo Economucus coincide with the characteristics of normal people.
Positivist epistemology: a researcher must have enough people to study, he is to calculate the number of people among them who have the characteristics of Homo Economicus, study the brain work of these people related to some economic situations, compare the data, and come to the conclusion whether Homo Economicus represents the majority of people.
Methodology: a researcher is to choose the principles of study (and methods) bearing in mind that the activation of neurons causes the appearance of thoughts.
Methods: the main one is the scanning of the brain, i.e. tomography of different kinds under experimental conditions connected with the economic tasks; the additional flow of blood to certain parts of the brain shows the higher activation of these parts, so they are connected with certain thoughts and feelings.
Theory: the use of theories must not contradict the ontological position of the researcher. He may create his own theory, which will show regularity of some events and will predict the behaviour of Homo Economicus.
Implication of theoretical conclusions: if there is a theory showing, explaining, and predicting the regularity of events (human behaviour as Homo Economicus), then the socio-economic and political life of the society will be structured on the lines of this theory. Selfish, rational, indifferent to pricks of conscience and sympathy, Homo Economicus is interested only in material things, his mind is a biological function of the brain, so the policy of the state is to take care of his body and ignore his cognitive, critical, creative and moral mental needs. If education does not bring money, it is not valuable by itself, and the state will not allocate money for it; if creative lessons at school are not connected with his future profession, which will bring money, they must be excluded from the school curriculum; if someone tries to criticize the social system or expresses moral anger at the political and economic governmental decisions based on this theory, he must be punished and sent to prison because he is divergent from Homo Economicus.


- 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.
- Sen, A. (2005) On Ethics and Economics, Oxford, Blackwell Publishing.
- 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.

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



Nina Slanevskaya. Interdisciplinary Neuroscience

| ©2009 N.M.Slanevskaya I