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socneurosci1.jpgAt the forthcoming Social Neuroscience journal homepage, editors Jean Decety and Julian Paul Keenan have a nice intro to the field of social neuroscience. It contains an initial definition of the field:

Social neuroscience may be broadly defined as the exploration of the neurological underpinnings of the processes traditionally examined by, but not limited to, social psychology. This broad description provides a starting point from which we may examine the neuroscience of social behavior and cognition.

However, we see this definition as a guide, rather than as a rule and, as such, we see this field as inclusive, rather than exclusive. The behaviors and cognitions studied under the umbrella “social” are diverse. From complex human interactions to the most basic animal relationship, social research is an expansive, diverse, and complex domain. Likewise, exploring the neurological underpinnings allows for equally assorted and varied lines of research. The combination of the areas reflects such diversity, in which research is performed in domains as wide reaching as the maternal behavior of knockout mice and endocast examinations of early Australopithecus.

I guess they would accept the brief report about the empathic mouse? Furthermore, the editors pinpoint some interesting issues pertaining to this field, including the problem of relating general (folk-)psychological concepts and constructs to the macro- and microscopic data from neurobiology:

One main challenge of social neuroscience is that social psychology and its related disciplines involve psychological constructs, such as moral dilemma, empathy, or self-regulation, that are difficult to map directly onto neural processes. These constructs often need to be deconstructed. Further, given the complexity of social interaction in humans, social neuroscience research needs to combine and integrate multiple-level analysis across different domains. Social neuroscience requires a system approach rather than a single level of analysis. We strongly believe that social and biological approaches when they are bridged can achieve a more accurate understanding of human behavior.

And they even have some precautionary remarks:

One drawback of neuroimaging research is that it can be perceived as the new phrenology (see Uttal, 2003) and it may give an over-simplistic account of the neuroscience of social cognition and behavior. With neuroimaging, there are gimmicks and trends, claims that extend beyond the research, and debates that can reach fever pitch levels over seemingly mundane differences. While hardly unique to our field, we encounter the danger of labeling parts of the brain as the “love center” or the area responsible for psychopathological behavior. In this sense, we are certainly flirting with a new phrenology. Therefore, we agree with our sensible colleagues who remind us to replicate and rely on all of the tools at our disposal.

Finally, Decety and Keenan point to the emerging ethical issues that are becoming apparent through this emerging scientific field:

Beyond the clear impact of social neuroscience in various academic domains, including education, for which we are all excited, we must carefully consider how society uses research findings from social neuroscience. There is a tendency in public journals to report over simplistic interpretations of complex issues. As Wolpe put it, “history has shown us again and again that society tends to use science to reinforce the moral assumptions and biases of the cultural moment. There is clearly a role for a thoughtful social neuroscience, where findings become part of considered policymaking around controversial issues. For example, research into addiction has provided new perspectives and tools for policymakers willing to use them. But if scientists are not clear about the scope and nature of their work, eager policymakers can seize preliminary and speculative findings and implement programs unsupported by the science itself”

At the homepage you can also find a section for related books. A few books are added here, and I wonder why they, in such a small and emerging field, have not added obvious books such as The neuroscience of social interaction by Frith & Wolpert.

-Thomas

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