Understanding the Brain

Social neuroscience

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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. As such, Homo sapiens create emergent organizations beyond the individual—structures that range from dyads, 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. The term "social neuroscience" can be traced to a publication entitled "Social Neuroscience Bulletin" that was published quarterly between 1988 and 1994. The term was subsequently popularized in an article by John Cacioppo and Gary Berntson, published in the American Psychologist in 1992.[1] Cacioppo and Berntson are considered as the legitimate fathers of social neuroscience. Still a young field, social neuroscience is closely related to affective neuroscience and cognitive neuroscience, focusing on how the brain mediates social interactions.[2]


Traditional neuroscience has for many years considered the nervous system as an isolated entity and largely ignored influences of the social environments in which humans and many animal species live. In fact, we now recognize the considerable impact of social structures on the operations of the brain and body. These social factors operate on the individual through a continuous interplay of neural, neuroendocrine, metabolic and immune factors on brain and body, in which the brain is the central regulatory organ and also a malleable target of these factors.[3] Social neuroscience investigates the biological mechanisms that underlie social processes and behavior, widely considered one of the major problem areas for the neurosciences in the 21st century, and applies concepts and methods of biology to develop theories of social processes and behavior in the social and behavioral sciences. Social neuroscience capitalizes on biological concepts and methods to inform and refine theories of social behavior, and it uses social and behavioral constructs and data to advance theories of neural organization and function.[4][5]

Throughout most of the 20th century, social and biological explanations were widely viewed as incompatible. But advances in recent years have led to the development of a new approach synthesized from the social and biological sciences. The new field of social neuroscience emphasizes the complementary relationship between the different levels of organization, spanning the social and biological domains (e.g., molecular, cellular, system, person, relational, collective, societal) and the use of multi-level analyses to foster understanding of the mechanisms underlying the human mind and behavior.


A number of methods are used in social neuroscience to investigate the confluence of neural and social processes (drawing from behavioral techniques developed in social psychology, cognitive psychology, and neuropsychology), associated with a variety of neurobiological techniques including functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), transcranial magnetic stimulation, event-related potentials, electrocardiograms, electromyograms, endocrinology, galvanic skin response, and studies of focal brain lesion patients.[6][7][8] Animal models are also important to investigate the putative role of specific brain structures, circuits, or processes (e.g., the reward system and drug addiction). In addition, quantitative meta-analyses are important to move beyond idiosyncrasies of individual studies, and neurodevelopmental investigations can contribute to our understanding of brain-behavior associations.[9][10]

Society for social neuroscience

A dinner to discuss the challenges and opportunities in the interdisciplinary field of social neuroscience at the Society for Neuroscience meeting (Chicago, November 2009) resulted in a series of meetings led by John Cacioppo and Jean Decety with social neuroscientists, psychologists, neuroscientists, psychiatrists and neurologists in Argentina, Australia, Chile, China, Colombia, Hong Kong, Israel, Japan, The Netherlands, New Zealand, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, The United Kingdom, and The United States. Social neuroscience was defined broadly as the interdisciplinary study of the neural, hormonal, cellular, and genetic mechanisms underlying the emergent structures that define social species. Thus, among the participants in these meetings were scientists who used a wide variety of methods in studies of animals as well as humans, and patients as well as normal participants. The consensus also emerged that a Society for Social Neuroscience should be established to give scientists from diverse disciplines and perspectives the opportunity to meet, communicate with, and benefit from the work of each other. The international, interdisciplinary Society for social neuroscience (http://S4SN.org) was launched at the conclusion of these consultations in Auckland, New Zealand on 20 January 2010, and the inaugural meeting for the Society was held on November 12, 2010, the day prior to the 2010 Society for Neuroscience meeting (San Diego, CA).

See also

Social Neuroscience Journals

Key readings

  • Brune, M., Ribbert, H., & Schiefenhovel, W. (2003). The social brain: evolution and pathology. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley & Sons Ltd.
  • Cacioppo, J.T. (2002). Social neuroscience: Understanding the pieces fosters understanding the whole and vice versa. American Psychologist, 57, 819-831.
  • 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.
  • Cacioppo, J.T., Berntson, G.G., Sheridan, J.F., & McClintock, M.K. (2000). Multilevel integrative analyses of human behavior: social neuroscience and the complementing nature of social and biological approaches. Psychological Bulletin, 126, 829-843.
  • Cacioppo, John T.; Gary G. Berntson (2004). Social Neuroscience: Key Readings,. Psychology Press. ISBN 978-1-84169-099-5. .
  • Cacioppo, John T.; Penny S. Visser, Cynthia L. Pickett (eds.) (2005). Social Neuroscience: People Thinking about Thinking People. MIT Press. ISBN 0-262-03335-6. .
  • Cozolino, L. (2006). The Neuroscience of Human Relationships: Attachment And the Developing Social Brain. W. W. Norton & Company.
  • de Haan, M., & Gunnar, M.R. (2009). Handbook of Developmental Social Neuroscience. The Guilford Press.
  • Decety, J., & Cacioppo, J.T. (2011). Handbook of Social Neuroscience. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Decety, J., & Ickes, W. (2009). The Social Neuroscience of Empathy. Cambridge: MIT press.
  • Emery, N.J. (2007). Cognitive Neuroscience of Social Behavior. Taylor & Francis.
  • Harmon-Jones, E.; P. Winkielman (2007). Social Neuroscience: Integrating Biological and Psychological Explanations of Social Behavior. Guilford Press. ISBN 978-1-59385-404-1. .
  • van Lange, P.A.M. (2006). Bridging social psychology: benefits of transdisciplinary Approaches. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
  • Wolpert, D. & Frith, C. (2004). The Neuroscience of Social Interactions: Decoding, Influencing, and Imitating the Actions of Others. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


  1. 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.
  2. Cacioppo, J. T., Berntson, G. G., & Decety, J. (2010). Social neuroscience and its relation to social psychology. Social Cognition, 28, 675-684
  3. Cacioppo, J. T., Berntson, G. G., & Decety, J. (2011). A history of social neuroscience. In A. W. Kruglanski and W. Stroebe (Eds.), Handbook of the History of Social Psychology. New York: Psychology Press.
  4. Cacioppo, J.T. et al. (2007). Social neuroscience: progress and implications for mental health. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 2, 99-123.
  5. Cacioppo, J. T., & Decety, J. (2011). Social neuroscience: challenges and opportunities in the study of complex behavior. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, Epub ahead of print
  6. Adolphs, R. (2003). Investigating the cognitive neuroscience of social behavior. Neuropsychologia, 41, 119-126.
  7. Cacioppo, J.T., & Berntson, G.G. (2009), Handbook of Neuroscience for the Behavioral Science. New York: John Wiley and Sons.
  8. Harmon-Jones, E., & Beer, J.S. (2009). Methods in Social Neuroscience. New York: The Guilford Press
  9. de Haan, M., & Gunnar, M.R. (2009). Handbook of Developmental Social Neuroscience. The Guilford Press.
  10. Decety, J., & Cacioppo, T.T. (2010). Frontiers in human neuroscience, the golden triangle, and beyond. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 5(6), 767-771.

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