Social Cognition: Concepts and Neural Bases
- Research Articles - Psychiatry
- 1143 vistas
The growing interest in the mechanisms determining the social functioning of human beings has raised the challenge of obtaining an accurate concept of social cognition and its related mechanisms, because several neurologic and psychiatric diseases exhibit related impairments since earliest stages. Social Cognition is defined as the integration of mental processes allowing the interaction among subjects and it includes phenomena as Social Perception, Theory of Mind and Empathy (or the affective response to the mental state of other people). In this article, as the primary aim, we expose the main concepts and neural basis in order to make easier the first approach for those looking for an application in the research with clinical populations.
Keywords: Social Cognition, Theory of Mind, Social Perception, Empathy, Socialization, Cognition.
Different cognitive abilities have been associated with the successful development of social interaction. The existence of mechanisms to select environmental elements, which require certain reactions from the subjects involved, explains this phenomenon (1). Both notions recognize the existence of cognitive and behavioral components in social interactions.
Even considering that social cognition and social behavior have been present in relevant events throughout the history of neurology, as in the case of Phineas Gage, its importance as an independent source of cognitive deterioration has been relegated to comparatively lower levels of attention. The importance of the clinical valuation of social cognition has been recently recognized through its inclusion in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V) where this domain is considered as one of the six fundamental neurocognitive domains (2,3). This emphasis emerges from experience in widely studied pathologies. For example, patients with schizophrenia are frequently excluded from relevant social activities, such as work and interactions with family and friends (4). The latter has been attributed to an impediment in the identification of the inconvenience of one's own actions in a determined social environment or a failure in the capacity to adequately attribute intentionality to interacting subjects. These abilities are directly related to the atrophy of grey matter, which corresponds to a phenomenon of the pathological anatomy of the disease itself (5-9). This example provides the initial idea of the interaction and dependency between external and internal cognitive processes.
On the other hand, the compromise of social performance responds to a central event in the pathogeny and clinical manifestation of the autism disorder spectrum. Its definition considers the presence of a persistent deficit in social interaction, emotional communication, and reciprocity, generating significant difficulties in their social and professional performance (2). The evidence available suggests that there is a decoupling between different brain regions during its development (10). This would explain why patients show lower performance in empathy tests (11), a relevant clinical element closely related with the functional compromise of the neuronal networks involved (12). Likewise, specific clinical cases show an identified pattern of compromised social cognition related to structural and functional changes belonging to each illness. This notion has been reinforced by the identification of neuronal networks that have been systemically involved in the functioning of theoretical subsystems of social cognition (4).
The examples previously discussed facilitate a more educational vision of the components of social interaction. Firstly, we distinguish that behavioral and cognitive phenomena participate in this domain. Figure 1 shows a schematic representation of social cognition, despite its complex and dynamic nature being widely accepted. In this article, due to the feasibility of measurement and given the importance of its compromise in the functioning of the individuals at the societal level, we focus on the cognitive components of social cognition , such as the Theory of Mind, Social Perception and Empathy. The objective of the present article is to introduce the concept of social cognition and its subsystems, as well as review evidence related to its neural correlatives.
Figure 1. Social Cognition, as a global term, unifies the activity of internally- and externally- directed processes. There are relationships of dependence and complementarity in between the subdomains.
We understand social cognition as the integration of processes that allow the interaction of subjects from the same species. It corresponds to an essential function for the survival of the subjects and the species. It depends on the exchange of social signs that allow them to obtain information about the other subjects involved, and to learn about their surroundings based on those signals. Starting from basic phenomena such as the attribution of intention, social cognition allows for the existence of a common reality among people (13,14).
For current models, the human brain operates as a system of probabilistic inference, hierarchically organized to constantly anticipate the potential stimulus it will receive and infer their possible underlying causes (15). In this vein, the principal product of cognitive cognition would be the generation of predictions (top-down) with the goal of diminishing the difference between predicted and realized entries (16). For example, a correct interpretation of a facial expression would lead to the correct prediction of the response from other subjects and an adequate preparation for the correct response.
In disease models, social cognition tends to fail, appearing in a clinically evident form disturbances in the following components: Deterioration of the Theory of Mind or mentalization, diminished empathy, or poor social perception (4). The following paragraphs analyze these concepts.
Theory of Mind
For a successful socialization, we need to recognize the experiences and intentions of other people as an independent factor. This ability to represent the psychological perspective of other subjects is known as mentalization, and requires subjects to theorize intimately about the thoughts of others. This phenomenon is known as the Theory of Mind (ToM) (17). Table 1 provides an example of a clinical compromise of the Theory of Mind and how this domain is evaluated.
Theory of Mind (ToM)
"John is finishing up his first dinner with his future mother-in-law. She has been cooking all day and trying to make a good impression on her daughter's fiancé. At the end of the meal, John smiles and says:
Table 1. Clinical Measurement of Social Cognition
This concept has been frequently defined as the capacity to infer the mental states of individuals, their beliefs, or their intentions, (4, 18) and has been measured under different experimental approaches, such as those based in figures, short stories, and animations. This domain must not be considered as a monolithic ability used in specific occasions, as the mere presence of another subject in the scene has been shown to unleash neural processes to compute their possible thoughts or intentions (19). This characterization also recognizes the existence of primitive levels of inter-subjectivity that operate even at the perceptual or attentional level (20).
Generally, ToM tests evaluate this function from two different angles: "Perspective Taking", which requires an inference about the mental state of another subject, or "Decoding", which is the mental state that must be identified as an expression, for example, of the eyes (21).
From a neuro-anatomical perspective, there are tests that support the existence of network underlying these functions. The mid pre-frontal cortex (mPFC) has been associated with the mechanism that starts the attribution of beliefs and desires (22) as well as the processing of relevant social and emotional information about other issues (23). It also participates in later reflections and complex mental elaborations about inferred mental states (24).
The superior temporal sulcus (STS) has also been involved in the representation of the actions of others (25). It has been systematically proved by its activation during the interpretation of the actions and the observation of social animations (26).
In the same vein, the Temporal-Parietal Junction (TJP) has been associated with the representation of thoughts or beliefs of other subjects but not with other mental states such as feelings or body sensations (27, 28). This notion has received some additional support through the use of tasks based on social animations or associated with the inference of intentions (26). Additionally, it is important to note that the functions of the ToM cannot be reduced to a unique level of processing. For example, while TPJ has been associated with the detection and explicit processing of mental states, STS participates in the implicit management if this information, both being necessary components to predict behavior (29).
These precise conceptual distinctions, so commonly used, could partially explain the wide variety of available evidence. Additionally, the overlap among regional functions should imply a greater functional and neuro-dynamic focus potential instead of structural localism.
Figure 2 shows an illustrative simplification of how the individual cognitive variables influence the interpretation of social information during the ToM process.
Figure 2. Theory of Mind. The process assigns meaning to social cues and is modulated by individual cognitive variables.
Refers to the generation of an emotional response in the observer in front of situations that affect other subjects. This may correspond to the same emotion, in which case the phenomenon is known as affective resonance. If the response corresponds to another, different feeling, such as anger when observing a person being publicly humiliated (4, 30). It is an essential component if the human emotional experience and the social interaction because when an observed mental state is understood and affective responses are generated, there can be pro-social and cooperative behaviors (31).
When this type of behavior is studied, the imitation of the body posture and the movement (chameleon effect) when performing a collaborative task with a stranger has been demonstrated, which improves the quality of the interaction. In fact, it has been shown that a chameleon effect is stronger in more emphatic subjects (32). It was sensed early on, from the definition of the concept by Theodore Lipps, that the "internal imitation" of actions play a relevant role in empathy (33).
When looking for neural correlations in the processes previously described, recent studies have shown that the performance of tasks associated with consciousness of emotions and actions both of our own and of others is associated with different areas of the brain, such as the somatosensorial cortex, insular cortex, cingulate cortex and the visual cortex (34). This provides an initial idea of the wide diversity of neuronal resources involved.
Additionally, the amygdala has an important role in the central processes involved in empathy. Beyond their relationship with emotional responses, the long term memory, the identification of the affective content of a stimulus and the perception of the orientation of a look (31), it probably exercises a systemic neuro-modulating function, as its activation precedes the participation of other areas during the observations of expressive faces (35). Given the great relevance of this area in social cognition and empathy, its role has been studied in conditions such as autism disorder spectrum, which show compensatory activation of unrelated cortical areas during the processing of facial images (36), while local activity on the amygdala during this type of task has been shown to be greater (37 ). Taking into consideration the evidence, some authors have proposed than the disturbances of the development of the amygdala as a neuro-anatomical and functional substratum of the socio-cognitive deterioration in these patients (38).
The Mirror Neuron System (MNS) is another concept commonly used to understand the neural mechanism that underlies empathy. This term was coined after the observation of certain neurons in the premotor cortex of monkeys which are discharged when they observe an action performed by another animal or the researcher, corresponding to the neural representation of the observed behavior (39). After, in the initial conceptualization, this system linked the observation and the execution of the motor actions (40), but further studies that use functional magnetic resonance images (fMRI) have shown that these properties are not exclusively present in visual systems, but also in auditive and language functions (41). Curiously, when observing people subjected to pain, the activation of the insular and cingulate cortex have been registered, but his activation is registered by negative perceptions about the affected person (42). Thereafter, a complex combination of actors determine empathy as a process, and the activity of different brain areas that participate in the performance of empathy tasks (43, 44) providing a neuro-dynamic explanation for the variability of the behavior.
Figure 3 illustrates the flow from social cues to the inference of the mental state and the generation of a related emotional response.
Figure 3. Empathy, as the process through which an affective response is generated, requires the identification of social cues and the inference of the mental states of the subjects who interact.
Social Perception has been defined as the capacity to perceive the mental states of others based on behavioral signals (45), and it is considered to precede more complex processes that rose more recently in the human development (46). The perception of the expressive actions of the movements is an important element for the understanding of the social environment (47) and regulates human behavior. In fact, the mere observation of an action in another person unleashes an anticipated action in the observed based on the inference of desires and intentions (48). Table 1 provides an example of the situations in which a compromise of social perception and a method for its measurement may be suspected.
For a long time, the study of this concept has been driven by the following axiom: we cannot directly perceive the mental states of other people and must execute varied mental abilities to infer them (mind reading). But recently, this notion has been questioned by the direct social perception theory, which has been backed by models such as Bayesian predictive codification, which suggests a probabilistic inference that involves different levels (15, 16).
The role of the amygdala has generated a particular interest given its participation in the discrete neural representation of certain emotions (49). When fast processing is required (50), the view is oriented to facial points with social relevance, such as the eyes (51, 52) Therefore, this area codifies the emotional prominence of social information (53). In the same vein, it has been shown that the orbitofrontal cortex participates in the perception of rewards associated with environmental lanes, participating in relevant aspects of planning and regulation of behavior in humans and primates (54).
Conversely, the fusiform gyrus includes many areas particularly involved in the visual aspects of social perception (55) Certain areas are associated with a selective response to body or facial stimulus (56) which participate in complex processes, such as the recognition of identity or intention (57). Nevertheless, the codification of social information must not be understood as a static and anatomically circumscribed phenomenon. STS has shown to receive auditive and visual afferences to extract and represent relevant and dynamic social information.
In the same vein, the perspective of neural networks has provided additional information about the role of the limbic lobe and other subcortical structures in facial interpretations. A meta-analysis that considered 105 original articles and 1600 subjects concluded that the processing of faces with emotional expressions is related with the activation of the visual, limbic, tempoparietal and prefrontal cortexes, as well as the putamen and cerebellum activity. While the cerebellum and the visual cortex are involved in the processing of all the expressions, happiness, fear, and sadness recruit the amygdala, and anger and disgust selectively recruit the insula (60). Once again, the data mentioned provides evidence about the diversity and complexity of the neuronal resources involved in social perception.
Frontal-temporal dementia is a well-studied example from the perspective of the condition. In these patients, the detection and the categorization if the emotions have been related to the volume of gray matter in the anterior temporal lobe and the frontal gyrus. Additionally, when compared to healthy controls, patients show a higher functional connectivity in the mentioned areas of interest (61), suggesting the existence of functional compensatory exchanges.
Figure 4 shows the selection and categorization of the environmental information as critical steps in social perception.
Figure 4. The process of social perception requires the selection of socially relevant information from the environment and a sound classification.
The study of social cognition implies a challenge at the conceptual level. In this article, we have proposed social cognition as an integration of the processes by which the subjects receive social signals (social perception), infer psychological states in other people (Theory of the Mind) and finally, generate emotional responses to motivate and regulate behavior (empathy). Even if this schematization can be conceptually improved, we propose it as a starting point to evaluate these cognitive functions in clinical populations.
In this review, we have intentionally omitted a deeper characterization of social behavior to focus our attention in those realms whose clinical evaluation is more practical, even recognizing that an additional effort must be done to provide an operational description of the behavioral realm.
The growing interest in establishing this domain as a research focus opens a great number of opportunities to generate evidence concerning patterns of specific disease in relation to both natural history as well as therapy.
- Preston SD, de Waal FB. Empathy: Its ultimate and proximate bases. Behav Brain Sci. 2002;25(1):1-20; discussion -71.
- Battle DE. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). Codas. 2013;25(2):191-2.
- Sachdev PS, Blacker D, Blazer DG, Ganguli M, Jeste DV, Paulsen JS, et al. Classifying neurocognitive disorders: the DSM-5 approach. Nat Rev Neurol. 2014;10(11):634-42.
- Henry JD, von Hippel W, Molenberghs P, Lee T, Sachdev PS. Clinical assessment of social cognitive function in neurological disorders. Nat Rev Neurol. 2016;12(1):28-39.
- Aboulafia-Brakha T, Christe B, Martory MD, Annoni JM. Theory of Mind tasks and executive functions: a systematic review of group studies in neurology. J Neuropsychol. 2011;5(Pt 1):39-55.
- Bertoux M, Delavest M, de Souza LC, Funkiewiez A, Lepine JP, Fossati P, et al. Social Cognition and Emotional Assessment differentiates frontotemporal dementia from depression. J Neurol Neurosurg Psychiatry. 2012;83(4):411-6.
- Bertoux M, Volle E, Funkiewiez A, de Souza LC, Leclercq D, Dubois B. Social Cognition and Emotional Assessment (SEA) is a marker of medial and orbital frontal functions: a voxel-based morphometry study in behavioral variant of frontotemporal degeneration. J Int Neuropsychol Soc. 2012;18(6):972-85.
- Hooker CI, Bruce L, Lincoln SH, Fisher M, Vinogradov S. Theory of Mind skills are related to gray matter volume in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex in schizophrenia. Biol Psychiatry. 2011;70(12):1169-78.
- Pinkham AE, Penn DL, Green MF, Harvey PD. Social Cognition Psychometric Evaluation: Results of the Initial Psychometric Study. Schizophr Bull. 2016;42(2):494-504.
- Muller RA, Shih P, Keehn B, Deyoe JR, Leyden KM, Shukla DK. Underconnected, but how? A survey of functional connectivity MRI studies in autism spectrum disorders. Cereb Cortex. 2011;21(10):2233-43.
- Kok FM, Groen Y, Becke M, Fuermaier AB, Tucha O. Self-Reported Empathy in Adult Women with Autism Spectrum Disorders - A Systematic Mini Review. PLoS One. 2016;11(3):e0151568.
- Dapretto M, Davies MS, Pfeifer JH, Scott AA, Sigman M, Bookheimer SY, et al. Understanding emotions in others: mirror neuron dysfunction in children with autism spectrum disorders. Nat Neurosci. 2006;9(1):28-30.
- Frith CD, Frith U. Social cognition in humans. Curr Biol. 2007;17(16):R724-32.
- Frith CD. The social brain? Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. 2007;362(1480):671-8.
- Clark A, Lappin S. Complexity in language acquisition. Top Cogn Sci. 2013;5(1):89-110.
- de Bruin L, Strijbos D. Direct Social Perception, mindreading and Bayesian predictive coding. Conscious Cogn. 2015;36:565-70.
- Baron-Cohen S. "Without a Theory of Mind one cannot participate in a conversation". Cognition. 1988;29(1):83-4.
- Schaafsma SM, Pfaff DW, Spunt RP, Adolphs R. Deconstructing and reconstructing Theory of Mind. Trends Cogn Sci. 2015;19(2):65-72.
- Kovacs AM, Teglas E, Endress AD. The social sense: susceptibility to others' beliefs in human infants and adults. Science. 2010;330(6012):1830-4.
- Gallagher HL, Frith CD. Dissociable neural pathways for the perception and recognition of expressive and instrumental gestures. Neuropsychologia. 2004;42(13):1725-36.
- Lee L, Harkness KL, Sabbagh MA, Jacobson JA. Mental state decoding abilities in clinical depression. J Affect Disord. 2005;86(2-3):247-58.
- Leslie AM, Friedman O, German TP. Core mechanisms in "Theory of Mind". Trends Cogn Sci. 2004;8(12):528-33.
- Saxe R. Uniquely human social cognition. Curr Opin Neurobiol. 2006;16(2):235-9.
- Amodio DM, Frith CD. Meeting of minds: the medial frontal cortex and social cognition. Nat Rev Neurosci. 2006;7(4):268-77.
- Frith CD, Frith U. Interacting minds--a biological basis. Science. 1999;286(5445):1692-5.
- Schurz M, Perner J. An evaluation of neurocognitive models of Theory of Mind. Front Psychol. 2015;6:1610.
- Saxe R, Kanwisher N. People thinking about thinking people. The role of the temporo-parietal junction in "Theory of Mind". Neuroimage. 2003;19(4):1835-42.
- Kanwisher N. Functional specificity in the human brain: a window into the functional architecture of the mind. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2010;107(25):11163-70.(25):11163-70.
- Gobbini MI, Koralek AC, Bryan RE, Montgomery KJ, Haxby JV. Two takes on the social brain: a comparison of Theory of Mind tasks.. J Cogn Neurosci. 2007;19(11):1803-14.
- Singer T, Lamm C. The social neuroscience of Empathy. Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2009;1156:81-96.
- Ruggieri VL. [Empathy, social cognition and autism spectrum disorders]. Rev Neurol. 2013;56 Suppl 1:S13-21.
- Chartrand TL, Bargh JA. The chameleon effect: the perception-behavior link and social interaction. J Pers Soc Psychol. 1999;76(6):893-910.
- Moya-Albiol L, Herrero N, Bernal MC. The neural bases of Empathy. Rev Rev Neurol.Neurol. 2010;50(2):89-100.
- Williams JH, Cameron IM, Ross E, Braadbaart L, Waiter GD. Perceiving and expressing feelings through actions in relation to individual differences in empathic traits: the Action and Feelings Questionnaire (AFQ). Cogn Affect Behav Neurosci. 2016;16(2):248-60.
- Morris JS, Friston KJ, Buchel C, Frith CD, Young AW, Calder AJ, et al. A neuromodulatory role for the human amygdala in processing emotional facial expressions. Brain. 1998;121 ( Pt 1):47-57.
- Pierce K, Muller RA, Ambrose J, Allen G, Courchesne E. Face processing occurs outside the fusiform 'face area' in autism: evidence from functional MRI. Brain. 2001;124(Pt 10):2059-73.
- Monk CS, Weng SJ, Wiggins JL, Kurapati N, Louro HM, Carrasco M, et al. Neural circuitry of emotional face processing in autism spectrum disorders. J Psychiatry Neurosci. 2010;35(2):105-14.
- Howard MA, Cowell PE, Boucher J, Broks P, Mayes A, Farrant A, et al. Convergent neuroanatomical and behavioural evidence of an amygdala hypothesis of autism. Neuroreport. c2000;11(13):2931-5.
- Rizzolatti G, Fadiga L, Gallese V, Fogassi L. Premotor cortex and the recognition of motor actions. Brain Res Cogn Brain Res. 1996;3(2):131-41.
- Gallese V, Fadiga L, Fogassi L, Rizzolatti G. Action recognition in the premotor cortex. Brain. 1996;119 ( Pt 2):593-609.
- Aziz-Zadeh L, Wilson SM, Rizzolatti G, Iacoboni M. Congruent embodied representations for visually presented actions and linguistic phrases describing actions. Curr Biol. 2006;16(18):1818-23.
- Singer T, Seymour B, O'Doherty JP, Stephan KE, Dolan RJ, Frith CD. Empathic neural responses are modulated by the perceived fairness of others. Nature. 2006;439(7075):466-9.
- Singer T, Seymour B, O'Doherty J, Kaube H, Dolan RJ, Frith CD. Empathy for pain involves the affective but not sensory components of pain. Science. 2004;303(5661):1157-62.
- Lebreton M, Kawa S, Forgeot d'Arc B, Daunizeau J, Pessiglione M. Your goal is mine: unraveling mimetic desires in the human brain. J Neurosci. 2012;32(21):7146-57.
- Yang DY, Rosenblau G, Keifer C, Pelphrey KA. An integrative neural model of Social Perception, action observation, and Theory of Mind. Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 2015;51:263-75.
- Low J, Perner J. Implicit and explicit Theory of Mind: state of the art. Br J Dev Psychol. 2012;30(Pt 1):1-13.
- Gallagher S. Direct perception in the intersubjective context. Conscious Cogn. 2008;17(2):535-43.
- Genschow O, Brass M. The predictive chameleon: evidence for anticipated social action. J Exp Psychol Hum Percept Perform. 2015;41(2):265-8.
- Calder AJ, Lawrence AD, Young AW. Neuropsychology of fear and loathing. Nat Rev Neurosci. 2001;2(5):352-63.
- Adolphs R. The social brain: neural basis of social knowledge. Annu Rev Psychol. 2009;60:693-716.
- Adolphs R, Gosselin F, Buchanan TW, Tranel D, Schyns P, Damasio AR. A mechanism for impaired fear recognition after amygdala damage. Nature. 2005;433(7021):68-72.
- Adolphs R. Fear, faces, and the human amygdala. Curr Opin Neurobiol. 2008;18(2):166-72.
- Costafreda SG, Brammer MJ, David AS, Fu CH. Predictors of amygdala activation during the processing of emotional stimuli: a meta-analysis of 385 PET and fMRI studies. Brain Res Rev. 2008;58(1):57-70.
- Watson KK, Platt ML. Social signals in primate orbitofrontal cortex. Curr Biol. 2012;22(23):2268-73.
- Pitcher D, Dilks DD, Saxe RR, Triantafyllou C, Kanwisher N. Differential selectivity for dynamic versus static information in face-selective cortical regions. Neuroimage. 2011;56(4):2356-63.
- Schwarzlose RF, Baker CI, Kanwisher N. Separate face and body selectivity on the fusiform gyrus. J Neurosci. 2005;25(47):11055-9.
- Shultz S, McCarthy G. Goal-directed actions activate the face-sensitive posterior superior temporal sulcus and fusiform gyrus in the absence of human-like perceptual cues. Cereb Cortex. 2012;22(5):1098-106.
- Jastorff J, Popivanov ID, Vogels R, Vanduffel W, Orban GA. Integration of shape and motion cues in biological motion processing in the monkey STS. Neuroimage. 2012;60(2):911-21.
- Kreifelts B, Ethofer T, Shiozawa T, Grodd W, Wildgruber D. Cerebral representation of non-verbal emotional perception: fMRI reveals audiovisual integration area between voice- and face-sensitive regions in the superior temporal sulcus. Neuropsychologia. 2009;47(14):3059-66.
- Fusar-Poli P, Placentino A, Carletti F, Allen P, Landi P, Abbamonte M, et al. Laterality effect on emotional faces processing: ALE meta-analysis of evidence. Neurosci Lett. 2009;452(3):262-7.
- Jastorff J, De Winter FL, Van den Stock J, Vandenberghe R, Giese MA, Vandenbulcke M. Functional dissociation between anterior temporal lobe and inferior frontal gyrus in the processing of dynamic body expressions: Insights from behavioral variant frontotemporal dementia. Hum Brain Mapp. 2016;37(12):4472-86.
HOW TO QUOTE?
Recovered from https://www.journalofneuropsychiatry.cl/articulo.php?id= 14
DOWNLOAD PDF VERSION