by Mirjam Holleman
Adolphs (2001) provides a review of current understandings of social cognition and where it is mapped in the nervous system. Which biological functions - or “specific neural structures, genes, and neurotransmitter systems” (p. 231) - are involved in social cognition? What role does social cognition and perception play in other cognitive processes such as communication, motivation, memory and emotion? And more importantly: how can this interplay be mapped in terms of neurological processes in the brain?
Adolphs (2001) defines social cognition as “the ability to construct representations of the relationship between oneself and others and to use those representations flexibly to guide social behavior” (p. 231). Before describing the neurological systems that have been shown to be involved in in social cognition, the article begins by introducing theories on the evolution of social cognition. Both the physical and the social environment in which humans operate can be unpredictable, and “many factors change rapidly over time” (p. 231). Cognitive functions that allowed our ancestors to apprehend complex patterns that could make one’s environment somewhat more predictable proved advantages. However, “compared to the physical environment in general, the social environment is more complex, less predictable, and, critically, more responsive to one’s own behavior (this applies already to the broadest and most primitive social relation—that between predator and prey)” (p.231). Some theorists claim that it is predominantly the complex “social environment” that has spearheaded our species’ cognitive evolution.
Two things about this discussion on the evolution of social cognition struck me, in comparison to the neuroanthropological perspective we have been exposed to thus far in this class: 1. The ontological separation between the ‘physical’ and the ‘social’ environment. 2. The presentation of ‘social cognition’ as a thing, a finished product, that evolved over time and is now imprinted on our brains somewhere.
MacKinnon & Fuentes (2012), in our reading for today, present how our social and ecological worlds are intertwined. In the construction of a social-biological niche, “the social-biological ecologies of human populations are modified by social behavior; [this social behavior] is in turn affected by the pressures of those same social-biological environments” (p. 77). From this neuroanthropological perspective, the social and the physical environment are not two separate variables that exist independently of one another, and independently shape(d) social cognition, but rather continuously feed back into each other, and continuously inform and reshape our social brains, as well as our (social and physical) environments. The “evolution is of social cognition” is not something that happened in the past, but is rather an ongoing process, continuously being shaped by, and shaping, the socio-biological niche.
What furthermore struck me about the search to identify where ‘social cognition’ is located and when and where it interacts or overlaps with other or ‘non-social-cognition,’ was the assumption of an ontological divide between social vs. ‘other’ cognition. From a neuroanthropological perspective, all cognitive processes, from the way we walk, talk, think, and make decisions, are informed by social or cultural interactions, and thus steeped in social cognition (see also my commentary on Larry Monocello’s post from 1/19/2016, this blog). Social cognition guides all our behavior, not just “social behavior.”
Adolphs (2001) comes to this same conclusion from a purely neuroscientific perspective, when, by the end of the article, it becomes clear that social cognition affects such a wide area of the brain (the amygdala, right somatosensory cortices, prefrontal cortices), and its processes are tied in with so many different cognitive functions (motivation, emotion, communication, sensory perception and association, and movement), that questions emerge about the “domain specificity of social cognition” (p. 236). Can social cognition really be studies as separate from other or “non-social” cognition (p. 237)? And what is unique about human cognition, compared to other primates? Is it to be found in social cognition? Adolphs (2001) concludes the article with the acknowledgement that “answers to these questions will require inputs from multiple disciplines […] our understanding will also require a better operationalization of what is to count as ‘social’ and better ways of measuring social behavior” (p.236).
What I have hoped to highlight with my review, is the input that the field of neuroanthropology could offer in this regard. The “integrated and holistic perspectives” [that anthropology offers] force us to think of sociality in a new light – not as an independent category but as an [integrated and] interrelated aspect of a generated niche” (MacKinnon & Fuentes 2012: 77).
Adolphs, Ralph. "The Neurobiology of Social Cognition." Current Opinion in Neurobiology 11, no. 2 (2001): 231-39.
MacKinnon, Katherine C., and Augustin Fuentes. "Primate Social Cognition, Human Evolution, and Niche Construction: A Core Context for Neuroanthropology." In The Encultured Brain: An Introduction to Neuroanthropology, edited by Daniel H. Lende and Greg Downey, 67-102. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2012.