Chapter Review of Social Cognition in The Cognitive Neuroscience III Edition edited by Michael S. Gazzaniga


English: Amygdala. Part of the social brain.
Amygdala. Part of the social brain. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Ralph Adolphs [1] presents recent findings that provide neurological correlates of that type of human cognition which is required for social interaction while producing behavior that is relevant to social settings. The main focus within the field of social cognition has been in discerning typical versus atypical behavior by recording the emotional state of a human being, particularly in psychiatry. Within the chapter, aspects of human cognition which are termed as emotion are distinguishable from perception, recognition and reasoning. This distinguishability was particularly facilitated by lesion studies and in more recent times by functional neuroimaging. However, Adolphs stresses that, “Autonomic responses, neuronal activity in the amygdala or in any other isolated brain region, are never identical with emotions,because emotions depend on a complex, multi-dimensional pattern of concerted processes occurring in many places at various points in time.” So in order to analyze emotions the author presents three theoretical perspectives as a starting point.

The first theory is concerned with information processing and states that emotions are concerned with or derive from information pertaining to the environment that trigger balancing mechanisms for survival and homeostasis within the environment. This domain specific “emotional information” has an immediate impact on the organism’s behavior as well as longer term goals and plans. Mental mechanisms for processing emotional information are in common with processing of thirst, hunger, pain, sex, and any other category of information that motivates behavior. As such, “emotion processing is domain-specific, and relates to the value that a stimulus has for an organism, in a broad sense.”

The second theory views emotions as states of being. The emotional state “is the coordinated web of action preparations, stimulus responses, and an organism’s internal mapping of these.” By this theory, emotion is not a prepared response to a stimulus. It is neither the cause nor the consequence of psychological states. Emotions are viewed as being parallel to behavior, psychological states as well as feelings, all of which have causal relations with each other. It is true that we still use the observation of behavior and articulated feelings as the indicator of emotional state.

The third theory concerns itself with the level of awareness involved with emotions and whether emotions are automatic or deliberate. The consensus reported by the author is that it is both. Emotions can be very rapid and automatic as well as guided by volition involving extended, meticulous mental processing.

The author provides these three theories as a starting point for a framework on describing and analyzing emotions. He observes that these theories collectively state that emotions are contingent to domain specific information, useful in preserving homeostasis with the environment, can be automatic or deliberate and can be temporally diverse.

Socially relevant information is processed by these highly linked modules and this evidence has been strongest in studies concerned with face perception. A stimulus such as a face can be full of queues and the author presents evidence found by researchers on how various areas of the brain (cortical regions in temporal lobe, fusiform gyrus) specialize in recognizing the static aspects of a face and other areas that are concerned with changeable aspects of the face (the superior colliculus, the pulvinar thalamus, and the amygdala). The changeable facial expressions which provide socially relevant queues about a person’s state, motivation and possible future action are largely processed by activation patterns that involve the central regions of the brain. Obviously, the regions of the brain associated with visual perception are also active and therefore lesion studies and intracranial studies have been vital in distinguishing how people with various visual impairments process emotional information in stimuli such as images of faces.

It has also been found that perception of words that are emotionally charged is facilitated by the amygdala which boosts the attentional capacities needed for processing words. “The amygdala modulates the access of visual information to subsequent cognitive processing on the basis of the emotional value of the information.” Though there is fair bit of evidence reported in the chapter concerning the activation of the amygdala when emotional information is being processed there isn’t sufficient evidence to state that it is a critical component of the brain that regulates or subserves emotions. “The evidence thus far points to a role for the amygdala in processing information at a level somewhat ‘higher’ than basic perception, but ‘below’ the level of explicit reasoning and thinking about social information.” The author does subscribe to the philosophical perspective that there are higher and lower levels of cognition which require spatially distinct modules of the brain to generate a temporal pattern of activation and the various evidence cited in the chapter jab at various questions raised by philosophers concerned with philosophy of mind.

The author’s own work [2] has been substantial in the area of identifying emotional information pertaining to “fear” in images of people expressing fear. The author investigated patients with damage to their amygdala due to disease or accident and found that apart from not being able to identify fear the patients also had difficulty in identifying facial expressions of surprise and anger. The patients however had functional capabilities in doing other cognitive tasks such as using the word “fear” in appropriate context. It was also found that persons with impairments to the amygdala and/or regions surrounding it  were not able to judge a scenario presented in a pictorial form that involved humans subject to dangerous or aversive situations. Such evidence further strengthens the conclusion that perception of what another person is trying to convey as an emotion involves neuronal activation patterns in specific regions of the brain.

The author also reports that the modality in which information is presented influences the way emotional information is processed. Evidence was cited in the chapter regarding different sub-areas of the amygdala involved in processing emotional prosody i.e. emotional information in audio channel.

In conclusion the author states that, “the human amygdala appears to be important both for the acquisition and for the online processing of emotional stimuli.” The author does recognize how the amygdala is differentially associated with different categories of emotion and how there are many other regions of the brain that exhibit  particular patterns of activation in order to process emotional information.

Commentary:

The chapter was considerably informative and it is quite evident to me that without eliciting a framework such as “information processing” it would be difficult to connect what happens within neurons to any aspect of what we typically call the mind. One really could say that activation in any other anatomical part of the body is somehow related to cognition but evidence from atypical anatomy of patients reveals which particular physiological functions of a groups of cells is more pertinent in the organism’s overall functioning within an environment.

To me, social cognition is also related to how a so called mind seems to arise within a group of individuals. This phenomenon has been studied as “group dynamics” in business and managerial research. If we consider the entire human as one node, then interconnectivity between different humans can be modeled in the same way  neurons are modeled in computational neuroscience. This would imply that information processing can arise in the interaction between different humans the way it arises between different neurons. Theoretically the nodes could also be entire cities or planets and one only needs to identify the channel in which the interconnectivity exists to model information transfer amongst nodes. This perspective would also allow us to analyze culture (cognition) that persists within a community (network) of people (nodes) over generations even when nodes keep dying out and new nodes keep getting installed into the network. Of course, this type of a perspective would be much too difficult to adopt for researchers who are deeply entrenched in 18th and 19th century views of cognition. But I am confident that the network of humans and machines that ends up compiling the compendium of knowledge termed as “science” is constantly evolving in order to update itself. And thereafter it will be easier to explain how every point and part of the universe is cognitive.

image from: http://miriadna.com/desctopwalls/images/max/Space-clouds.jpg

References:

[1] Ralph Adolphs (2004). Processing of Social and Emotional Information by The Human Amygdala. The Cognitive Neuroscience III Edition edited by Michael S. Gazzaniga, MIT Press, pages 1017-1031

[2] Ralph Adolphs (2003). Cognitive Neuroscience of Human Behavior, Nature Reviews – Neuroscience, Vol 4, pages 165-178. Available: http://xa.yimg.com/kq/groups/14661755/364660170/name/human+social+beh.pdf

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