A New Brain Network that Works Only for Social Interactions

We would do anything to know what is going on in the other person’s mind, to know what others are thinking. To a certain extent, we are able to deduce what the person opposite to us is thinking and we frame our responses and interactions with them accordingly. These understandings and interpretations of, thoughts and interactions, is necessary for the functioning and maintenance of social relationships. However, it is still unknown how these social interactions are processed by the brain.

In a study conducted by Dr. Julia Sliwa and Dr. Winrich A. Freiwald at the Rockefeller University in 2017 involving rhesus monkeys and investigating the neural circuitry involved in the interpretation of social interactions, it was found that a previously undiscovered network of brain regions was activated on watching social interactions alone. This network of social interaction included regions of the prefrontal and temporal cortices, the mirror neuron system, and sub-cortical systems known to be involved in reward and emotional processing. ‘We uncovered a new high-level social cognition network in monkeys that may be a precursor to how humans evolved the ability to understand what one another may be thinking’, explained Dr. Freiwald.

The identification of this new brain network provides interesting clues to the origins of our ability to cue in on what other people are thinking. Our ability to read and understand other people’s intentions, to predict the behavior of others, to have an intuition of the desires of other people or in other words to understand what others are thinking is an essential trait of the human mind. It is positively imperative to our social interactions. This study by Sliwa and Freiwald has identified in primates areas in the brain that are exclusively dedicated to evaluating these social interactions.

The monkeys were shown various videos of other monkeys interacting with physical objects and with other monkeys socially and while they watched them, the team used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to map the areas of the brain that became active during this viewing. The researchers then analyzed the fMRI data and were able to determine exactly which areas of the brains responded to physical interactions and which areas responded to the social interactions.

The findings were a surprise in its discovery of new network or additional areas of the brain apart from the areas that were expected to come up as participating in the response to social interactions. The researchers further identified upon minute probing a brain network portion that responded exclusively to social interactions. This brain network is socially sensitive only and is located in the same areas of the brain that are actively receptive to our reflection or understanding ability of other people’s thoughts.

In retrospect, our unique and sophisticated ability as humans to read and predict other people’s minds might have an evolutionary precursor in the monkey and their social interaction reading skills. We are not as far removed from our primate roots as suggested by our complex world of social interactions and cognition.

A report published in Nature Neuroscience in 2010 also supports this point and further showcases the possibilities of understanding the human mind and identifying newer brain networks still through primates. Researchers found that the amygdala, a small almond-shaped brain structure, is involved in interpersonal functions. This brain region supports those skills that are necessary for a complex social life and such functions as interpreting emotional facial expressions. The volume and complexity of social networks are directly proportional to the volume of this structure. And comparative neuro-anatomical studies in primates have also found the same link between the amygdala volume and the social network size and the social interaction skills.

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