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Social Neuroscience Laboratory

The Social Neuroscience Laboratory is located on the top floor of the Biopsychological Sciences Building at The University of Chicago. We call upon a wide range of levels of analysis and a diverse array of methodologies, including experimental social psychology, social cognition, surface event-related brain potential morphological and topographical analyses, functional magnetic resonance imaging, autonomic psychophysiology, surface electromyography, startle blink modulation, behavioral and social endocrinology to address questions about the mechanisms underlying complex social behavior. The approach taken is to capitalize on the strengths of each of the available methodologies and levels of analysis in an attempt to develop more comprehensive models of social processes and behavior.

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What is Social Neuroscience?

Social and biological approaches to human behavior have traditionally been contrasted, as if the two were antagonistic or mutually exclusive. The assumption in social neuroscience is that the mechanisms underlying mind and behavior will not be fully explicable by a biological or a social approach alone, that a multi-level integrative analysis may be required, and that a common scientific language, grounded in the structure and function of the brain, can contribute to this endpoint. All human behavior, at some level, is biological but this is not to say that biological reductionism yields a simple, singular, or satisfactory explanation for complex behaviors, or that molecular forms of representation provide the only or best level of analysis for understanding human behavior. Molar constructs such as those developed by the social sciences provide a means of understanding highly complex activity without needing to specify each individual action of the simplest components, thereby providing an efficient means of describing the behavior of a complex system.

Within the discipline of psychology, the tensions between biological and social approaches surface in biopsychology/behavioral neuroscience and social psychology. Biopsychology focuses on neural substrates and production mechanisms for behavior, whereas social psychology emphasizes multivariate systems and situational influences in studies of the impact of human association on mind and behavior. Human biology is anchored in concrete anatomy and genetics, providing fundamental elements from which to draw interconnections and with which to construct theory. The social world, in contrast, is a complex set of abstractions representing the actions and influences of and the relationships among individuals, groups, societies, and cultures. The differences in levels of analysis have resulted in distinct histories, research traditions, and technical demands, leaving what some regard as an impassable abyss between social and biological approaches and evidence of the impending demise of psychology as a discipline. The abyss between biological and social levels of organization is a human construction, however, one that can be bridged to achieve a complete understanding of human behavior.

Not long ago, it was thought that a set of master genes activated the DNA necessary to produce the appropriate proteins for development and behavior. The architects of this construction were conceived as the forces of evolution operating over millennia, the builders were conceived as encapsulated within each living cell far from the reach of personal ties or sociocultural influences. Human biology, however, has evolved within a fiercely social world, provides potentials and constraints for representation and behavior attuned to this social world, and is shaped profoundly by the social world.

Early life experiences have also been shown to affect phenotypic expression in animals. Rats raised in enriched environments show more dendritic branching, more postsynaptic dendritic spines, and larger and more numerous synapses per neuron. When a restricted sector of somatosensory cortex is deprived of its normal pattern of activation, the affected cortex becomes largely reactivated by inputs from adjoining and nearby skin fields. Maternal stimulation during rearing affects the number of fibers in the corpus callosum and related areas in the central nervous system. Although the generalization of these findings from animals to humans needs to be demonstrated, they suggest clear connections rather than an impassable abyss between biological and social levels of organization. Studies that span biological and sociocultural levels of analysis are needed to examine these connections in humans and to plumb causal (including possible reciprocal) relationships and underlying mechanisms.

The nervous, endocrine, and immune systems were also once thought to function independently, outside the reach of the personal ties and cultural influences. Both of these simplifying assumptions are understandable given the complexities involved, and studies guided by these assumptions have led to impressive advances in knowledge. An inherent limitation in such studies, however, is that they are blind to linkages across these systems and the mechanisms underlying these interactions. Research on the molecular aspects of neuroimmunomodulation, for instance, has revealed these to be integrative systems that communicate by a common biochemical language (i.e., shared ligands -- compounds that bind to receptors and exert functional actions, such as cytokines, hormones, and neurotransmitters). The discovery of adrenergic and glucocorticoid receptors on immune cells provided avenues through which the nervous and endocrine systems could exert their influence on immune function. The immune system also acts on the central nervous system, as illustrated by studies of a peripheral immune cytokine (lymphocyte secretion) that is transduced into a neuronal signal and conveyed to the brain via afferent fibers in the vagus nerve.

The assumption that nervous, endocrine, and immune systems operate outside the reach of sociocultural influences allowed focused study of isolated anatomical systems. The advances resulting from such studies do not imply logically that social psychological or behavioral approaches have been eclipsed or are obsolete, however. Research that considers contextual and social factors has uncovered new effects that challenge some of the existing conceptualizations in the neurosciences. For instance, strains of mice with specific genes inactivated (i.e., knockout mice) have become important tools in biomedical research. Although the phenotypic expression of a knockout has been known to depend on the genetic background, the effects of the environmental context were thought to be unimportant. Crabbe, Wahlsten, and Dudek (Science, 1999), however, demonstrated that the specific behavioral effects associated with a given knockout varied across testing environments within and across laboratories. Crabbe et al. (1999) noted that the specific experimenters performing the testing were unique to each laboratory and could have influenced the behavior of the mice, and concluded that “for behaviors with smaller genetic effects (such as those likely to characterize most effects of a gene knockout), there can be important influences of environmental conditions specific to individual laboratories, and specific behavioral effects should not be uncritically attributed to genetic manipulations such as targeted gene deletions�? (p. 1672). The effects of social context also appear to be powerful determinants of the expression of autonomic, neuroendocrine, and immune reactions.

The importance of social and cultural influences is less surprising in light of the role of the brain in orchestrating the nervous, endocrine, and immune systems in conjunction with environmental transactions. The decade of the brain has also led to a realization that a comprehensive understanding of the brain cannot be achieved by a focus on neural mechanisms alone, and advances in molecular biology have made it clear that genetic expressions are not entirely encapsulated, that heritable does not mean predetermined. A social or behavioral level of analysis is also insufficient, of course. Social processes and behavior are profoundly affected by brain injury, as documented in cases such as Phineas Gage. Phineas Gage was a railway worker who was described as an exemplary citizen, energetic, shrewd in personal and financial affairs, and persistent. At work one day, he accidentally ignited an explosive charge, driving his tamping iron through his skull and ravaging the ventromedial aspects of the most anterior portions of the frontal cortex in the left and right hemispheres. Gage’s personality changed permanently and profoundly following the accident. He became profane, impatient, capricious, and impulsive, given to outbursts of anger and rage. The social relationships that existed prior to the accident deteriorated thereafter.

Individuals who lose the amygdala and associated inferior portions of the temporal cortex exhibit the Kluver-Bucy syndrome, which was a syndrome first described in animals. These individuals are characterized by a loss of fear and increased and inappropriate sexual activity. Prosopagnosics, who typically have bilateral lesions in the occipital lobes near the temporal lobes, do not undergo a change in personality but have another disturbing problem that alters their social behavior: they no longer recognize the faces of those they once knew (e.g., spouses) even though they show larger skin conductance responses to familiar faces. Everyday social behaviors such as sexuality, decorum, aggression, altruism, conformity, and social influence are quintessentially social and neurophysiological processes.

The complementarity of biological and social approaches to human behavior was not readily apparent when research methods were limited primarily to descriptions of the behavior of animals far removed from their ecological or evolutionary context, observations of patients who suffered trauma to or disorders of localized areas of the brain, and post-mortem examinations. As a consequence, biological approaches tended to be viewed by social psychologists as uselessly reductionistic, while social approaches tended to be viewed by biopsychologists as more literary than scientific, more a history of human experience than a rigorous, robust, and replicable body of scientific knowledge. Technical and methodological developments now enable biological measures of ongoing human behavior, including electrophysiological recording, functional brain imaging and neurochemical techniques. Conversely, social methods for studying behavior and ambulatory recordings of biological function can now be applied to animals and humans living in complex environments, providing a more fruitful model for the dynamic interaction between biological mechanisms and social context. New disciplines have also emerged: genetics, molecular biology, neuroendocrinology, and psychoneuroimmunology with techniques sufficiently refined that they can now be used together to elucidate the reciprocal interactions between neural and social processes. Changes in medical science, worldwide health problems (e.g., AIDS, chronic disease), and U.S. demographics have helped fuel basic social and biological research on societal problems. With both means and motive now available, there is growing evidence that a more comprehensive understanding of the mind and behavior will be fostered by integrative, theoretical analyses that span the biological and social levels of organization.

These developments underscore that social and biological approaches are complementary rather than antagonistic. Together, these perspectives are helping to illuminate questions ranging from the social sciences to the neurosciences by examining how organismic processes are shaped, modulated, and modified by social factors and vice versa.Rather than viewing the social sciences and neurosciences as generating inevitably oppositional forces that are ripping apart psychology disciplines, Social Neuroscience Laboratory at The University of Chicago is dedicated to pursuing the potential for strong centripetal forces generated by research cutting across these distinct but equally important levels of organization.

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