Thursday, July 08, 2010

How our brains resolve competing social signals

Zaki et al. suggest that that two systems that have been the subject of numerous MindBlog posts — the mirror neuron system (MNS) and mental state attribution system (MSAS)— are specialized for processing nonverbal and contextual social cues, respectively, and support the resolution of incongruent social cues (such as facial expression conflicting with verbal content of a message).
...we predicted that these control systems would help resolve conflict by "biasing" processing toward domain-specific neural systems involved in responding to social cues deemed to be task relevant, as reflected in perceivers' behavioral reliance on a given cue type when rating target affect. On the one hand, to the extent that perceivers behaviorally rely on nonverbal cues, biasing could increase activity in regions responsible for processing such cues, including premotor and parietal regions comprising the putative mirror neuron system (MNS). On the other hand, to the extent that perceivers deem contextual cues more relevant, processing could be biased toward systems implicated in drawing inferences about non-observable mental states such as beliefs, including the medial prefrontal, posterior cingulate, temporopolar, and temporoparietal regions comprising the mental state attribution system (MSAS). Because these systems are functionally dissociable and may in some cases inhibit each other, they are strong candidate targets for the effects of social cognitive conflict resolution.
From their abstract:
Cognitive control mechanisms allow individuals to behave adaptively in the face of complex and sometimes conflicting information. Although the neural bases of these control mechanisms have been examined in many contexts, almost no attention has been paid to their role in resolving conflicts between competing social cues, which is surprising given that cognitive conflicts are part of many social interactions. Evidence about the neural processing of social information suggests that two systems—the mirror neuron system (MNS) and mental state attribution system (MSAS)—are specialized for processing nonverbal and contextual social cues, respectively. This could support a model of social cognitive conflict resolution in which competition between social cues would recruit domain-general cognitive control mechanisms, which in turn would bias processing toward the MNS or MSAS. Such biasing could also alter social behaviors, such as inferences made about the internal states of others. We tested this model by scanning participants using functional magnetic resonance imaging while they drew inferences about the social targets' emotional states based on congruent or incongruent nonverbal and contextual social cues. Conflicts between social cues recruited the anterior cingulate and lateral prefrontal cortex, brain areas associated with domain-general control processes. This activation was accompanied by biasing of neural activity toward areas in the MNS or MSAS, which tracked, respectively, with perceivers' behavioral reliance on nonverbal or contextual cues when drawing inferences about targets' emotions. Together, these data provide evidence about both domain-general and domain-specific mechanisms involved in resolving social cognitive conflicts.
Figure: The presence of social cognitive response conflict (i.e., the comparison of incongruent vs congruent trials) recruited activity in several regions associated with domain-general conflict monitoring and control, including the anterior cingulate cortex, right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex, right middle frontal gyrus, and posterior dorsomedial prefrontal cortex

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