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EURYI highlight: Young researcher looks for scientific basis of human social behaviour

European Science Foundation

Humans are social animals even more than was thought, including those suffering from autism and conditions that make it hard to relate to others. Cooperative behaviour is deeply ingrained in nearly all people, but the underlying cognitive processes that make this happen are poorly understood. The cognitive scientist Natalie Sebanz has won a European Young Investigator Awards (EURYI) Award from the European Science Foundation (ESF) to identify the underlying mechanisms and neurological structures underpinning the great human ability to cooperate and participate jointly in tasks that require close coordination with others.

Sebanz has already shown that we are programmed for teamwork and are strongly influenced by others around us even when this does not appear to be in our interests. "Specifically, I have shown that people take into account what others are doing even when this is not required and actually interferes with their own performance of a task," said Sebanz. "I have also shown that people with autism who have difficulties understanding what others think, feel, or believe, also have this strong tendency to take into account what others are doing."

Sebanz believes her work will lead to a better understanding of the processes involved in joint action and so enable significant progress to be made in science, education, and engineering. "It can improve our understanding of human cognition, improve our understanding of disorders of social cognition like autism, and help to determine factors that enhance the quality of interpersonal coordination in educational settings such as teacher-student interactions," said Sebanz. There is also the potential for exploiting such knowledge in robotics, in the development of autonomous agents (robots) able to engage in joint action either with each other robots or with humans.

Sebanz anticipates several challenges for her work, one concerning the issue of "reciprocity", where two or more people coordinate their actions and adjust to each other. The point here is that cooperative action involves compromise by all parties, each person reacting to others during a process of convergence around a common task. This is harder to analyse than processes involving single individuals operating on their own, and may involve different areas of the brain. "We would like to find out which areas of the brain are involved in the synchronization of actions, and in making predictions about the timing of others' actions," said Sebanz.

Sebanz plans to study humans while they are cooperating, and identify the associated underlying neurological changes through imaging techniques. She notes that there is as yet little knowledge of how behaviour in social contexts is related to underlying neurological processes. "We know quite little about the cognitive and brain processes that allow us to coordinate our actions with others - be it playing a duet, moving furniture together, or navigating in heavy traffic," said Sebanz. "With this project, I expect to identify behavioural and brain mechanisms that allow people to work together in different situations."

This work will build on current knowledge of social behaviour derived from linguistic and other studies. "So far, people have studied how we come to have common ground and shared understanding through language and through taking others' perspective," said Sebanz. "My research will address how looking at things at the same time, knowing what others' tasks are, and coordinating actions in time, contribute further to the emergence of common ground and support successful joint action."

Such knowledge will have not just academic value, but will make a huge contribution across a range of disciplines, including therapies for conditions involving loss of social functions.

Natalie Sebanz, 29 year-old Austrian scientist, is currently an assistant professor at Rutgers University in Newark. She completed her PhD at the Max Planck Institute for Psychological Research in Munich and went on to carry out postdoctoral research at both Max Planck and Rutgers University. In 2006 she was also a research fellow at the Center for Interdisciplinary Studies at Bielefeld University. Dr. Sebanz has been working on the question of how people coordinate their actions to reach common goals for several years, and she has organized several symposia on this topic. Her work on this topic has appeared in major journals in the field of cognitive psychology and cognitive neuroscience. She was an editor for the book "Disorders of Volition", published by MIT Press in 2006.

The EURYI awards scheme, entering its fourth and final year, is designed to attract outstanding young scientists from around the world to create their own research teams at European research centres and launch potential world-leading research careers. Most awards are between €1,000,000 and €1,250,000, comparable in size to the Nobel Prize. Sebanz will receive her award in Helsinki, Finland on 27 September 2007 with other 19 young researchers.

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More on Sebanz's work http://www.esf.org/activities/euryi/awards/2007/natalie-sebanz.html

More on EURYI
http://www.esf.org/ext-ceo-news-singleview/article/2007-euryi-20-young-researchers-to-receive-nobel-prize-sized-awards-for-breakthrough-ideas-294.html

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