Social Cognition and Neuroscience
This newest addition to the research groups in the School arose organically from the developing research interests of established staff members and the addition of a number of recent faculty appointments. Broadly, our research questions are about how the brain makes sense of the social world. Particular foci are on the perception of other people - their faces, bodies, voices; understanding the meaning of others' actions; on social learning; on disorders of social cognition; and on emotion and memory.
Dr. Boehm is an expert on the use of electrophysiology techniques to study a variety of processes in perception and memory. A focus of his work is on implicit and explicit memory for faces.Dr Boehm's Publications
Prof.Cross's work uses a variety of methodological approaches to examine experience-dependent plasticity of the human brain and behaviour. She is particularly interested in how the brain negotiates between perception and action, how a viewer’s aesthetic experience of a stimulus shapes perception, and how learning changes the brain across the lifespan. Much of her work uses dance as a model system, and more recently, she has been using artificial agents (including avatars and robots) to address how social experience shapes perception.Emily's Publications
Professor Downing is interested in understanding how the brain deals with one of its most complex problems -- understanding other people. Most of my work is guided by a broad question: What are the neurocognitive mechanisms that transform perceptual data into reliable, socially-relevant signals about the people around us?Professor Downing's Publications
Dr. Koldewyn is interested in the cognitive and neural architecture of social perception across both typical and atypical development, asking these intertwined questions: 1) How is social perception and its development altered in neurodevelopment disorders and what are the neural bases of these differences? 2) How does the social perception system arise and change across typical development? and 3) What is the cognitive and neural architecture of social perception in typical adults? Her approach to these questions combines behavioural and eye-tracking paradigms, visual psychophysics and brain imaging techniques..Dr Koldewyn's Publications
Professor Mills has a long-running program of research into brain and language development including a focus on bilingualism. She is also one of the world leaders on ERP studies with people with Williams syndrome, a genetic disorder with profound consequences for social functioning spanning language, emotion, and perception of faces.Professor Mills's Publications
Dr. Parkinson's research focuses on the interface between cognition and motivation. He is interested in how motivational signals are generated, how they interact with ongoing cognitive processes and how this affects behaviour. From the perspective of 'motivation' he has studied physiological systems (hunger) as well as higher-order motives including power, achievement and affiliation.Dr Parkinson's Publications
Dr. Ramsey is interested in the cognitive and brain systems that underpin our ability to understand the actions and mental states of other people. This research spans several areas of social neuroscience, including: Action observation, Theory of mind, Gaze perception, Imagery, Imitation and mimicry, and Perspective taking. His experimental approach is based on a combination of behavioural and brain imaging techniques.Dr Ramsey's Publications
Professor Thierry's work spans many themes, but recently he has been engaged in a high profile project that challenges the current understanding of the neural basis of face detection and recognition – important basic processes in social vision. Thierry's (other) social neuroscience focus is on linguistic relativity, i.e., the influence of one's language(s) on their perception and conception of the world.Professor Thierry's Publications
Professor Turnbull is a neuropsychologist and clinical psychologist with interests in emotion and its many consequences for mental life. Particular foci are on emotional influences on decision making, and on the role of emotion in false beliefs - especially in neurological patients who have either anosognosia or confabulation.Professor Turnbull's Publications
Professor Ward investigates adaptive bases for a range of social behaviours. Much of his current work is on the information content of the human face and the social inferences made on the basis of this information. Social inferences from mere appearance can be surprisingly accurate: untrained observers can reliably detect a range of stable personality traits and mental health characteristics merely from facial appearance. His current work develops a framework in which facial appearances, their correlates with behaviour, and the ability of observers to decode these appearance-behaviour correlations, are all part of an evolved signal system.Professor Ward's Publications
Research in the Social Neuroscience group broadly fits into a number of interrelated themes. Below we describe some of the research questions that motivate our work in each of these themes.
How do specific brain regions contribute to the perception of other individuals? What information is conveyed by people's faces, bodies, movements, and voices, and how do other people respond to this information? How are multiple aspects of our knowledge about other people integrated in the brain?
How do we use our own motor systems to understand the actions of others? How is this shaped by learning and expertise? What are the brain regions that support cross-modal representations of actions?
Disorders of social cognition
What is the role of serotonin in the altered social cognition and judgements sometimes seen in psychiatric disorders? How do patterns of internet gambling relate to risk factors for psychological problems? What are the mechanisms behind the heightened social drive in Williams Syndrome?
Emotion and motivation
How does emotion influence decision making? How does the motivational context influence the valuation of available choices? How can we measure self-beliefs and motivations?
How are social interactions shaped by the social cues our interaction partners send? How do we use social cues to infer mental states and predict the behaviour of others? Do certain types of social cues, smiles for example, have "intrinsic" meanings or can the information they convey be learned?
This page highlights a few projects from Social Neuroscience at Bangor to give a flavour of the kind of work that we are engaged in.
Human Signal Systems: Adaptive Principles
Professor Rob Ward is interested in the valid and deceptive nonverbal signals that we all give out in everyday interactions. This topic is inspired by evolutionary theories of communication, or signalling systems. In biological signalling systems, a signal is an evolved behaviour or trait that alters the behaviour of observers. Signal systems have many interesting properties, and emphasise the co-evolution of the sender and the receiver: the signal must be informative enough that receivers benefit from attending and responding to it. However, signals are not expected to be universally valid or "honest". There is a selective pressure to send out occasional deceptive messages, which benefit the sender at the expense of the receiver. That is, the receiver can be manipulated into acting against their own best interests (e.g. Krebs & Dawkins, 1984).
We are examining (1) the different kinds of information conveyed by the face and everyday body motion; (2) how this information is perceived by observers; and (3) to what extent this information is reliable or deceptive. Here is an example:
Which of the two faces above would you say is more interested in others' feelings? Most people (80%) correctly say the face on the right. That face is a morph (composite photo) of 15 women who actually report having high interest in others' feelings. The left image is a composite of 15 women who rated themselves as low in interest for others' feelings.
Understanding non-human agents in action
In daily life, we observe and interact with people moving in myriad different manners, some more predictable than others. Dominant theories of action understanding suggest that we understand others' actions by using our own motor experience to extrapolate what others might be doing, and what they are likely to do next. But what happens when we see a robot busting some moves, or a triangle negotiating a barrier to grab a cookie?
Recent research by Dr. Emily Cross and Dr. Richard Ramsey suggests that the same sensorimotor brain regions engaged when watching our fellow humans move through space are also engaged when seeing non-human agents (whether Lego robots, 2D shapes, or a wind-up bulldozer) in action. Ongoing investigations seek to understand top-down modulations of these perceptual processes, and how different expectations change how you perceive such non-human agents in action.
Reappraisal generation after acquired brain damage
Salas, C.E., Gross, J. & Turnbull, O.H. (2014). Reappraisal generation after acquired brain damage: The role of laterality and cognitive control. Frontiers in Emotion Science, 5 (242): 1-9. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00242
Reappraisal is a key skill in psychotherapy, and there has been much interest in its neuroanatomical and neuropsychological basis – though investigations have been limited to functional imaging approaches. Those data suggests that reappraisal tasks activate a set of areas in the left hemisphere, linked to language abilities and verbally mediated cognitive control. This study investigated patients with focal damage to the left hemisphere [LH, n=8], who were more markedly impaired on a reappraisal generation task than individuals with right hemisphere lesions [RH, n=8], and healthy controls [HC, n=14]. The reappraisal generation task consisted of a set of ten pictures from the IAPS, depicting a range of negative events. The patients were asked to quickly generate as many positive reinterpretations as possible for each picture. The patients were also assessed on several measures of cognitive control. Only two cognitive control processes – inhibition and verbal fluency - were inversely associated to reappraisal difficulty. The results of this study are discussed in relation to the neuroanatomical and neuropsychological basis of reappraisal, and its implications for neuro-rehabilitation – suggesting emotion regulation gains especially when patients are offered additional time, and/or offered external sources of regulation.