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Social Neuroscience

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social neuroscience

Getting in on the ground floor of an emerging idea, company, or academic discipline, an idea that predicts future possibilities, an idea so new that most people haven’t yet heard of it, is exciting – but also stressful. Whether or not the idea takes off always causes uncertainty.

Yet when sales soar, new products launched, new discoveries made, that initial stress turns into feverish exhilaration – the type of exhilaration that accompanies all new, groundbreaking theories, propositions or concepts, whatever the field or career.

And it’s this type of exhilaration that happens to be taking place right now in one of the newest fields of scientific study called Social Neuroscience.

Harvard University Social Neuroscientist Jason Mitchell told Science in May 2010 that when he was first starting, “there was all sorts of anxiety about whether what we were doing was even going to gain any kind of toehold in the field, or whether it was some weird, freakish sideshow.” But those days have past, as he recounted in the article “Peering Inside the Social Brain,” thanks to the rapid expansion of brain scanning devices in public and private laboratories.

In other words, one of the most cutting-edge areas of scientific study – social neuroscience - is on a soaring, positive trajectory.

Focus on the Whole

Up until recently, the fields of Neuropsychology and Neuroscience have focused almost exclusively on researching human functioning in terms of individuals. However, most professionals working in these fields know that human behavior does not occur within a vacuum. Behavior occurs within the context of complex social systems, social systems that greatly affect – and often determine - the actions or reactions of people everywhere, in every culture.

In addition, there has been exponential growth over the last decade in research into the neural networks that underlie emotions and motivations. Researchers know that emotions determined by social factors often motivate people to act or behave in certain ways, and those working in social neuroscience seek to uncover the neural processes that affect both emotions and motivations.

The social neuroscience approach integrates theories and findings from social psychology, cognitive psychology, neuropsychology and neuroscience. By integrating the theories and methods of these psychological disciplines, social neuroscience seeks to identify socioemotional factors of influence in terms of interactions between the social, cognitive, and neural components of human functioning.

Some of the current research topics in social neuroscience include stereotyping, prejudice, person perception, and social exclusion. Additionally, some topics once considered off-limits to scientists are now considered hot research areas in social neuroscience, such as why do people love, hate or despise each other? How do people empathize with others? Why are some people more ambivalent than others? Why do some people become religious or political fanatics? And how do brain deficits cause impairments in social skills and abilities?

In the Science article “Peering Inside the Social Brain,” a top National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) investigator noted that only up until a few years ago, topics focusing on the neural foundations of love, friendship and trust “just basically seemed ludicrous.”

Janine Simmons, chief of the NIMH program for affect, social behavior, and social cognition, noted that neuroscientists in the past were limited mainly by technology. Imaging studies of single-cell recordings of animal brains had been taking place, and “these research tools have proven valuable, but it was the ready availability, starting about a decade ago, of functional neuroimaging technology that fueled an explosion in social neuroscience.”

Imaging technology such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) has been available since the 1980s, but it’s only been in the last 10 years that the falling price of the equipment has made it more affordable for universities and other research laboratories. For more information see neuroimaging.

As the number of brain scanners like fMRI multiplied across the country, so did the number of researchers interested in unraveling the neural systems involved with complex social processes. Research studies proliferated with the availability of this equipment. Two scientific associations have formed as a result of the burgeoning field,  the Society for Social Neuroscience and the Social and Affective Neuroscience Society.

Careers in Social Neuroscience

Job opportunities are also expanding, as the number of jobs outpaces the number of qualified applicants. The NIMH heavily funds this area of research, more than many other areas, as well as the National Science Foundation (NSF). Additionally, a number of private organizations fund research in areas of social neuroscience.

If you are passionate in studying the neural and cognitive properties that enable social interactions, and want to enter one of today’s fastest growing psychology fields, you should consider a career in social neuroscience.

Established degrees in social neuroscience don’t yet exist, but instead, students take a number of interdisciplinary courses in the social and biological sciences, and learn how to use neuroimaging devices by working in facilities that own this type of equipment. Some schools are developing specialized tracts for those interested in social neuroscience careers.

Receiving an undergraduate or graduate degree is one of the best preparations for working in social neuroscience. Usually a Ph.D. is required to work as a researcher for a public or private organization. Request information from schools offering degrees in psychology to learn more.

Mirror Neurons, Empathy and Theory of Mind

In the early 1990s, the discovery of “mirror” neurons presciently preceded the advent of an integral research area in the field of Social Neuroscience, a field that didn’t become defined until 10 years later.

Italian researchers studying the brains of macaque monkeys noticed that individual neurons fired both when the monkeys grabbed for an object, and when they observed other monkeys grabbing for the same object.

These researchers believed that this discovery helps explain how concepts of empathy and theory of mind occur on a neuronal level. They believed that if watching an action evokes the same neuronal activity as actually performing the action, then mirror neurons must exist for concepts such as feelings and emotions.

These researchers hypothesized that individuals watching others experiencing an emotion could elicit the same emotions through the mediation of these mirror neurons. Additionally, they hypothesized that mirror neurons were correlated with the concept of theory of mind.

Similar to empathy, theory of mind defines an individual’s ability to understand another’s state of mind, realizing that others believe differently, that different people have differing representations of the world. For more information refer to childhood developmental psychology.

Social neuroscience researchers have followed up on this initial research, now employing the use of brain scanners to observe the neuronal activity when simulated experiences of empathy and theory of mind are performed in the laboratory.

This research is still in its infancy, but many social neuroscientists believe that mirror neurons will prove to be a crucial link for piecing together the brain’s processes underlying complex social skills and interactions.

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