Cognitive Neuroscience Talks

Developmental origins of the social brain in infancy

One major function of our brain is to enable us to recognise, manipulate, and behave with respect to socially relevant information. Much research on how the adult human brain processes the social world has shown that there is a network of specific brain areas, called the social brain, preferentially involved during social cognition and interaction. Studies on the adult social brain have provided important insights into the fully developed brain machinery that deals with our social world. However, we know very little about how these capacities in understanding others’ social behaviour develop. In order to fill this gap, I will present work that investigates the emergence of the social brain during infancy and argue that there are at least three fundamental social brain mechanisms that develop during infancy. These are specialized brain mechanisms that (i) allow for the detection and categorization of social objects/agents, (ii) help infants decode the signals that social agents communicate to them, and (iii) enable the uniquely human capacity to communicate with others about objects and events (joint attention). Moreover, it is of critical importance to understand how the development of these brain processes varies across individuals. Thus, in the last part of my talk, I will present work that looks at how certain genes impact social brain processes in infancy, specifically the responding to emotional expressions, and thereby give rise to individual differences in emotional sensitivity and temperament. This multi-method examination employing neuroscientific (EEG, ERPs, and NIRS) and genetic analyses paints an integrative and rich picture of early social-cognitive development.