News Release 

Brain imaging reveals neural correlates of human social behavior

New findings explore how behaviors such as empathy and team flow are represented in the brain

Society for Neuroscience

CHICAGO -- Advances in the study of human social behavior may lead to a better understanding of normal processes such as empathy and theory of mind, as well as dysregulated conditions including autism spectrum disorder. The findings were presented at Neuroscience 2019, the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience and the world's largest source of emerging news about brain science and health.

People are incredibly social creatures, and our brains have evolved to support a wide array of complex social behaviors. Everyday experiences, such as empathizing with others and finding flow in teamwork, are supported by sophisticated neural circuits that researchers are just beginning to map out. A better understanding of the neural basis of social behaviors could also shed light on conditions such as autism spectrum disorder or social anxiety, in which social abilities are affected.

Today's new findings show that:

  • People have an intuitive and universal language of social touch consisting of a core set of gestures that can be used to communicate love, attention, happiness, sadness, gratitude and calming (Sarah McIntyre, Linköping University, Sweden).
  • Holding hands with a romantic partner during a painful experience increases brainwave coordination between the individuals and reduces the perception of pain, providing a neural basis for understanding empathy (Simone Shamay-Tsoory, University of Haifa, Israel).
  • "Team flow," which occurs when a group of people reaches flow while working toward a common goal, is associated with a distinctive brain state and synchronization of teammates' neurons (Mohammed Shehata, California Institute of Technology).
  • A previously unknown type of neuron in the amygdala of monkeys simulates a social partner's mental decision processes, allowing an individual to predict its partner's intentions and choices (Fabian Grabenhorst, University of Cambridge).
  • Neurons in the human prefrontal cortex that reflect the thoughts and beliefs of other individuals may support theory of mind (Ziv Williams, Harvard University).

"The neuroscience advances presented today expand our understanding of how our brains process social information, enabling us to live in our complex society," said Michael Platt, PhD, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania who studies decision processes. "These advances provide potential new avenues for researching empathy, theory of mind and even conditions such as autism spectrum disorder."

This research was supported by national funding agencies including the National Institutes of Health and private funding organizations. Find out more about social behavior and the brain on BrainFacts.org.

Related Neuroscience 2019 Presentation

Clinical Neuroscience Lecture: From Pecking Order to Ketamine: Neural Mechanisms of Social & Emotional Behaviors

Sunday, Oct. 20, 10:30 - 11:40 a.m., Hall B?

Social Behavior Press Conference Summary

  • Humans brains have evolved to support a suite of sophisticated social behaviors.
  • Brain imaging allows scientists to identify brain regions and patterns of activity involved in social behaviors such as empathy, team flow and theory of mind.

Tactile Emojis and the Language of Social Touch

Sarah McIntyre, sarah.mcintyre@liu.se, Abstract 358.11

  • People use a universal language of social touch consisting of gestures used to communicate love, attention, happiness, sadness, gratitude, and calming, which needs minimal context and no training or feedback.
  • Data from fMRI scans shows that social touch messages are represented in the primary somatosensory cortex, an area of the brain specialized in touch processing.
  • Within close relationships, touchers intuitively conveyed distinct emotional messages that receivers could identify, even when the pair could not see each other's facial expressions.
  • Trained touchers using a set of standardized gestures developed from watching intuitive touch communication were readily understood by untrained strangers.

An Interbrain Approach for Understanding Empathy

Simone Shamay-Tsoory, sshamay@psy.haifa.ac.il, Abstract 274.06

  • Empathy allows us to understand and share one another's emotional experiences and has been shown to reduce the perception of pain.
  • In a dual EEG study, holding hands with a romantic partner during a painful experience increased coordination of brainwave frequency between the two people in a network that mainly involved the central brain regions of the person receiving the pain and the right hemisphere of the empathizer.
  • The level of brain-to-brain coupling correlated with the reduced perception of pain, suggesting this coordination may contribute to touch-related pain relief.
  • Serial dual-fMRI scans also showed shared activity between the two people during hand-holding.

Specific Neural Correlates Integrate Flow and Social Experience

Mohammad Shehata, mohammad.shehata@gmail.com, Abstract 249.15

  • A unique brain state characterizes "team flow," achieved when a group of people -- such as a sports team, music ensemble, dance squad, or work team -- falls into coordination while working toward a common goal.
  • The brains of team members started to synchronize only when they were in flow, with the neurons in one player's brain beginning to fire in sync with the teammate's neurons in certain regions.

Neurons in the Primate Amygdala Simulate Decision Processes of Social Partners

Fabian Grabenhorst, fabian.grabenhorst@gmail.com, Abstract 325.28

  • A previously unknown type of neuron found in the amygdala of monkeys, named "simulation neurons," allow animals (and potentially people) to reconstruct a social partner's state of mind and thereby predict their intentions and decisions.
  • Simulation neurons could be important building blocks for social cognition and precursors for the cognitive capacities of humans, such as theory of mind.
  • Dysfunction in simulation neurons could help to explain difficulties with social interactions in conditions such as autism spectrum disorder and social anxiety.

Cellular Representations of Human Theory of Mind

Ziv Williams, ZWilliams@mgh.harvard.edu, Abstract 249.03

  • People have a complex ability to make inferences about the minds of others and predict others' beliefs, a concept known as theory of mind.
  • A subset of neurons in the human prefrontal cortex responds selectively to others' beliefs and distinguishes them from one's own.
  • Such neurons may be potential targets of investigation for social behavioral conditions such as autism spectrum disorder.

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About the Society for Neuroscience

The Society for Neuroscience is the world's largest organization of scientists and physicians devoted to understanding the brain and nervous system. The nonprofit organization, founded in 1969, now has nearly 37,000 members in more than 90 countries and over 130 chapters worldwide.

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