Social and Affective Neuroscience of Everyday Human Interaction

I found – rather serendipitous – this recent, open access and very interesting book “Social and Affective Neuroscience of Everyday Human Interaction“, edited by Springer 2023.

This Open Access book presents the current state of the art knowledge on social and affective neuroscience based on empirical findings.

  • This book is open access, which means that you have free and unlimited access
  • Presents integrative view of neuroscience that is social, affective, moral, political, and interpersonal
  • Provides a holistic view of social behavior, from the molecular level to daily human interactions
  • Serves as an introduction to advanced topics for students, and as guide for more advanced research

Some highlights as appetiser:

Molecular Imaging of the Human Emotion Circuit

Emotions modulate behavioral priorities via central and peripheral nervous systems.
Understanding emotions from the perspective of specific neurotransmitter systems is critical, because of the central role of affect in multiple psychopathologies and the role of specific neuroreceptor systems as corresponding drug targets. This chapter provides an integrative overview of molecular imaging studies that have targeted the human emotion circuit at the level of specific neuroreceptors and transmitters.

Distribution of type-2 dopamine receptors, μ-opioid receptors, and 5-HT 1A transporters measured using PET radioligands

The focus is specifically on opioid, dopamine, and serotonin systems, given their key role in modulating motivation and emotions, and there is a discussion on how they contribute to both healthy and pathological emotions.

There is clear evidence that dopamine and opioid systems modulate hedonic processes. However, both dopaminergic and opioidergic activation is observed during negative emotions too, suggesting that they may also support general motivational and arousal-modulation components of emotions. On pathophysiological level, the dopamine system is more clearly linked with substance abuse and addictive disorders, whereas opioidergic activations vary from substance to substance, with clear downregulation observed particularly in obesity.
The serotonin system links more clearly with negative emotions including fear and sadness, yet outside pharmacological and clinical studies, the majority of these data come from pharmacological fMRI studies and those correlating transporter availability with BOLD–fMRI responses.

There is no clear one-to-one mapping between specific emotions or emotional behaviors and specific neurotransmitters. Obviously, numerous neurotransmitters have a wide variety of roles, and their specific actions are not limited to emotional behavior. Human imaging studies are challenging to conduct and are limited by radioligand pharmacokinetics and affinity. For the major neurotransmitter systems implicated in emotion, reliable radioligands exist for imaging serotonin, dopamine, opioid and endocannabinoid receptors and transmitters. For opioid and dopamine systems, there are also radioligands available that are sensitive to endogenous transmitter levels, whereas this has yet to be achieved for serotonin and endocannabinoid systems. In sum, targeting neurotransmitter mechanisms of emotions using PET is a powerful tool for dissecting the molecular mechanisms of emotions, further potentiated by next-generation PET–MRI devices which allow us to address the molecular specificity of emotion-related BOLD activation.

Social and Affective Neuroscience of Embodiment

Embodiment is a subject that has broadened the scientific discussion about the biological system, self-regulation, and neural processes. As shown in this chapter, perceptive illusions have been demonstrated as an important tool to manipulate the corporation of the body itself and the overlap with the body of the other.
Interestingly, the embodiment of the other has helped to understand social processes such as empathy, racial bias, change of the negative valence for the judgment of the other, social perception, among other aspects. The studies have shown us the malleability and the rapid adaptability to the judgment of the implicit social attitude when we experience the body of the other despite the existing cultural differences.
The advancement of research of social embodiment has allowed us to better understand categorization, prejudice, and discrimination from the embodiment of the other and its neural and physiological correlates. Moreover, neuroscientific methods help us demonstrate the similarity in neural patterns during emotional experience and during the simulation of an emotional experience, and can thus provide evidence for the embodiment of emotion. This neuroscientific evidence is in addition to the vast evidence from behavioral studies on embodiment of emotion, such as embodied emotion expressed through body posture, facial expression, language, and cognitive processes (e.g., stimulus evaluations).

The Neuroscience of Beauty

Appreciating beauty is part of everyday life, when we contemplate fine arts, architecture, music, and natural scenes.
Aesthetic appreciation, like any ordinary phenomenon of human life, triggers affective and cognitive processes that can provide the subject with sensations of hedonic pleasure and cognitive self-reward.
Although humans share several neuropsychological processes, the experience of aesthetic appreciation is undeniably idiosyncratic, and sometimes it is not that simple to find beauty where we were supposed to find it, and more often the same object can elicit different reactions amongst observers.

The perceptual, behavioural, and neural mechanisms involved in the perception of aesthetic stimuli are key to our understanding of the everyday interactions and motivations which characterise our relationships with the natural and man-made world. The aim of understanding the cognitive processes underlying aesthetic appreciation has been a key driver for applying the tools and methods of cognitive neuroscience to the field of art and aesthetic stimuli and establishing links with the parallel study of perceptual, emotional, attentional, semantic, memory, and decision-making processes.
Investigating neural networks engaged in decoding and valuing aesthetic content is an important challenge that should involve other areas of knowledge. For the phenomena of aesthetic appreciation to be understood in all their complexity, it is necessary to integrate into the physiological aspects also the historical, social, and cultural aspects, which holistically make up the person.

Sex Differences in Social Cognition

Examples of photographs used as stimuli, as a function of facial expressions.
The upper row shows positive emotional states with strongly positive emotions, such as joy on the left, and mildly positive ones, such as comfort or peacefulness, on the right.
The lower row shows negative emotional states with the mildly negative emotions, such as discomfort or disappointment, on the left and strongly negative ones, such as displeasure or pain, on the right

Several studies have demonstrated sex differences in empathy and social abilities. This chapter reviews studies on sex differences in the brain, with particular reference to how women and men process faces and facial expressions, social interactions, pain of others, infant faces, faces in things (pareidolia), living vs. non-living information, purposeful actions, biological motion, erotic vs. emotional information. Sex differences in oxytocin-based attachment response and emotional memory are also discussed. Overall, the female and male brains show some neuro-functional differences in several aspects of social cognition, with particular regard to emotional coding, face processing and response to baby schema that might be interpreted in the light of evolutionary psychobiology.

Mean latency (in ms) of the P1 component (along with SD) recorded at the lateral occipital area (independent of hemispheric site) and analyzed according to subjects’ sex and type of facial expression.

Genetic and hormonal influences are long known to affect the human brain and determine a variety of anatomical and functional differences between the two sexes. The cerebral sexual dimorphism would support marked diversities in reproductive, parental, and social behavior. A rapidly increasing literature now documents significant sex differences in the reactivity to/efficacy of drugs and pharmaceutical molecules, as well as in the incidence of neurodegenerative, neurological, and psychiatric diseases.

Besides anatomical and physiological diversities, some functional and mental differences between men and women have been recently reported by neuroscientific studies (e.g. for the following abilities: verbal fluency, emotion recognition, face perception, and empathy.

ERPs signals recorded over left and right lateral occipital sites following presentations of infant facial expressions exhibiting strongly negative emotions, according to viewer group.
Smaller P300 amplitudes were recorded in fathers vs. mothers, especially with infant expressions of suffering. 

Several studies have demonstrated sex differences in empathy and related capacities. This chapter reviews studies on sex differences in the brain, with particular reference to how women and men process faces and facial expressions, social interactions, pain of others, infant faces, faces in things (pareidolia phenomenon), opposite- vs. own-sex faces, living vs. non-living information, incongruent/inappropriate behavior, motor actions, biological motion, erotic vs. emotional information. Sex differences in oxytocin-based attachment response and emotional memory are also discussed. Overall, the female and male brains show some neuro-functional differences in several aspects of social cognition, with particular regard to emotional coding, face processing, and response to baby schema, which might be interpreted in the light of evolutionary psychobiology.

On the basis of a review of the relevant literature, it is concluded that many of the sex differences in social cognition may be related to the (biologically determined) role of females as primary offspring caregivers. This distinction may be associated with females’ greater empathic attitude, ability to understand body language and facial expressions, attachment and responsivity to infants (Oxytocin-mediated), early interest for infants, interest for social information, emotional responsivity, lesser incidence of autistic, psychopathic and sociopathic disorders. In this way, this chapter provides a unified framework for understanding the multifaceted consequences of a sexual dimorphism in human parental behavior.

Development of Morality and Emotional Processing

Emotions play a very important role in moral judgments.
Hume argues that morality is determined by feelings that make us define whether an attitude is virtuous or criminal. This implies that an individual relies on their past experience to make a moral judgment, so that when the mind contemplates what it knows, it may trigger emotions such as disgust, contempt, affection, admiration, anger, shame, and guilt. Thus, even so-called “basic” emotions can be considered as moral emotions.
As Haidt points out, all emotional processing that leads to the establishment and maintenance of the integrity of human social structures can be considered as moral emotion.
Consequently, the construct of “morality” is often characterized by a summation of both emotion and cognitive elaboration.

In one way or another, there is a great interest by moral psychologists in studying the relationship between these two phenomena, since this relationship affects areas such as law, politics, public health, and interpersonal relationship processes in general.
In addition, emotions are currently being discussed as active processes, no longer as a mere physiological consequence of a given stimulus, highlighting the important role of cognitive processes, such as the regulation of emotion, in modulating the emotional response.
In that sense, the specific assessment of different moral foundations for different ages can contribute to a better understanding of the development of moral judgment throughout the different stages of development.
In addition, it is essential to highlight the importance of assessing the development of moral judgment also during adulthood, as well as in different sexes.

Trust in Social Interaction: From Dyads to Civilizations

Human trust can be construed as a heuristic wager on the predictability and benevolence of others, within a compatible worldview.
A leap of faith across gaps in information.

Trust minimizes apparent prediction error and facilitates the interpersonal sharing of priors

Generally, we posit that trust constitutes a functional bridge between individual and group homeostasis, by helping minimize energy consumed in continuously monitoring the behavior of others and verifying their assertions, thus reducing group complexity and facilitating coordination. Indeed, […] trust is crucial to the formation and maintenance of collective entities. However, the wager that trust represents in the face of uncertainty leaves the possibility of misallocated trust, which can result in maladaptive outcomes for both individuals and groups.

More specifically, trust can be thought of as a scale-invariant property of minimizing prediction error within ascending levels of social hierarchy ranging from individual brains to dyads, groups and societies, and ultimately civilizations. This framework permits to examine trust from multiple perspectives at once, relating homeostasis, subjective affect and predictive processing/active inference at the individual level, with complexity and homeostasis at the collective level. We propose trust as a paradigmatic instance of an intrinsically dialectical phenomenon bridging individual and collective levels of organization, one that can be observed in daily experience and empirically studied in the real world.

At a collective level, trust facilitates efficient group behavior, reducing group complexity and overall energy consumption

Here, we suggest collective psychophysiology as a promising paradigm for studying the multiscale dynamics of trust. We conclude with discussing how our integrative approach could help shine light on not only the bright but also the dark sides of trust.

To conclude, […] trust is defined at its core as a belief and behavior in accordance with predictable benevolence in another within a compatible worldview.
Classical theories and studies on trust still bear the mark of behaviorism, with little regard for social interaction dynamics and the informational depth provided by subjective experience, particularly affect, and lacking any computational account of how these relate to brain function and cognition, due also to limitations in experimental methods and conceptual commitments at the time.

From a broken leg and a kind stranger, we have attempted to take the reader inwards to the predictive and homeostatic processes underlying cognition and affect, and outwards, to the formation and maintenance of collective entities. In doing so, we hope we have conveyed that trust is a root fundament of the structure of human life in every form of interaction, from dyads to civilizations.

The Time Has Come to Be Mindwanderful: Mind Wandering and the Intuitive Psychology Mode

No matter how hard you try—pinching different parts of your body, slapping your face, or moving restlessly in your seat—you cannot prevent your mind from occasionally escaping from the present experience as you enter into a mental navigation mode.
Sometimes spontaneously, others deliberately, your mind may move to a different time—you may see yourself running an experiment inspired by the chapter you just finished reading or you may imagine yourself on a quantum leap into the future as you fantasize about the delivery of your Nobel Prize acceptance speech.
Your mind may move to a distinct space, for example, as you replay last weekend’s party or anticipate a most desirable date, and may even venture into the mind of another (e.g., as you embody the mind of the author you are currently reading).

Nature and functions of mind wandering

Our minds can accomplish all this mental navigation in fractions of a second, allowing us to see ourselves or even impersonate different people across space and time. While teleportation and time travel may never be physically possible, our wandering minds are indeed very accomplished “time machines“.
The concept of mind wandering is still very fuzzy and heterogeneous. As such, distinct authors seldom agree on a common definition. Despite this lack of agreement, the adoption of a family resemblances view of mind wandering, which embraces the heterogeneity of the phenomenon, is key to further advancing the field.
Here, I define mind wandering as the process by which the mind decenters from the current task and stimulus conditions, moving freely toward multiple space, time, and/or mind positions.

Mind wandering depends on three interconnected processes:

  1. Perceptual decoupling
    (e.g., My mind often disconnects from what surrounds me)
  2. Mental improvisation
    (e.g., My thoughts jump easily from one subject to another)
  3. Mental navigation across
    – time (e.g., My thoughts travel frequently through time–past or future),
    – space (e.g., I often imagine that I’m somewhere else),
    – and minds (e.g., I often imagine what others are thinking or feeling)

The process can be triggered either by bottom-up or top-down mechanisms. 

Mind wandering processes

During the last decades, the concept of mindfulness has witnessed a growing popularity. Even though different definitions are available for mindfulness, most of the researchers see it as a process of directing the attentional focus to the individual’s current experience in the present moment while avoiding thought escape into the past/future. As such, a mindful mind seems to be the opposite of a wandering mind. For example, Mrazek et al. demonstrated that people with high levels of mindfulness report fewer instances of mind wandering and perform better on an attention focus task (i.e., mindful breathing).

Despite some controversy regarding conceptual and methodological aspects in mindfulness research, there is evidence for the benefits of mindfulness in terms of orientating attention to the current physical reality. In contrast to orienting attention to a physical reality, mind wandering optimizes an orientation to the psychosocial domain.
In addition to being aware of the present moment, mindfulness can also refer to the act of being aware of one’s own internal thoughts and not just stimuli in the external environment. As such, it could also be that mind wandering and mindfulness represent two ends of the same construct.
Therefore, it is necessary to find an ideal balance between attention to the external world and our internal thoughts, while also mindfully being aware of the wandering mind and the benefits that might come with it.
Now the question remains: How can individuals take full advantage of the benefits of mind wandering in order to facilitate navigation in the psychosocial domain?

The ideal balance between mindfulness and mind wandering is still not known. However, it seems that in order to facilitate both navigation across the physical and psychosocial domains, individuals may gain an advantage by adopting a mindwanderfulness position—a process of strategically switching between mindfulness and mind wandering, in order to respond adaptively to the demands of physical and psychosocial domains.

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