Are humans wired to be social? Insight into the field of social neuroscience and its latest research

Updated: Mar 5

Interview with Dr. Pascal Vrticka (Ph.D.) senior researcher at Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, Germany.

Neuroscience is a relatively new field of research that emerged at the interface between social psychology and neuroscience/neurobiology. It promotes a multi-modal and multi-method approach to studying the underpinnings of human social behavior, comprising neural, hormonal, cellular, and genetic mechanisms and, relatedly, the associations and influences between social and biological levels of organization.

I spoke with Dr. Pascal Vrticka (Ph.D.), a senior researcher at Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, Germany.

See Dr. Vrticka present his work at the upcoming “Future of Neuroscience conference” taking place on 18–19 May at University College London.

What field of research do you work in, and who do you study?

I am a social cognitive affective neuroscientist with strong ties to developmental psychology. My interdisciplinary research focuses on normal as well as disturbed functioning of the human social brain. My participants are adults, adolescents, as well as children, both female and male, and most recently parent-child pairs.

In basic terms, what is social neuroscience?

Social neuroscience is an interdisciplinary field devoted to understanding the biological mechanisms that underlie social processes and behavior. For humans, social interactions are crucial for survival in early life and vital for psychological and physiological wellbeing throughout the life span. Therefore, rather than looking at the functioning of the body and the brain in isolation as has been done in traditional neurobiology for many years, social neuroscience acknowledges that the social environment has a strong influence on biological and brain processes.

How did you become particularly interested in social neuroscience?

I was interested in how the brain works from very early on. I initially started to study biology and biochemistry but I quite quickly realized that for me it was not enough to understand how cells or organs work. I really wanted to look at a broader perspective to see how biology in the brain actually makes us who we are. So, after studying biochemistry and then basic neuroscience, I moved to cognitive neuroscience and social cognitive affective neuroscience during my Ph.D. That is where I realized that we basically need to link biological processes with psychological processes in order to understand what makes us human, what makes us social, why we are social, and what could be wrong on a biological level if our social interactions don’t turn out the way they should.

I think social neuroscience is really the perfect field for answering such questions. It was initiated in the 1980s by John Cacioppo and Gary Berntson as a unique combination of until then two separate branches of investigation, traditional neurobiology and social psychology.

The biological branch always said that we could only look at the brain in isolation, because it is very complicated as such and we can never get at a level where we could actually understand how brains interact.

Conversely, social psychology was looking at interaction between humans, but on behavioral and psychological levels. Only through the unique combination of traditional neurobiology and social psychology by the field of social neuroscience, we can start asking the question — what biologically makes us human; what biologically drives our wish to interact socially with others?

What methods do you use for studying social neuroscience?

As my main research tools I use neuroimaging (fMRI, fNIRS, EEG), biological methods (such as genetics and epigenetics, assessment of immune system functioning and telomere length measurement), psychological questionnaires and narrative-based methods, and behavioral assessments.

What are your research aims, and in which direction would you like to develop the field of social neuroscience?

I would like to combine state-of-the-art social neuroscience methods with the developmental psychological framework of attachment theory. In this approach, I would like to particularly emphasize inter-individual differences in relationship quality and how the latter associate with parent-child interaction and child development, as well as with psychological and physiological wellbeing across the life span.

Concerning neuroscience techniques, I am trying to integrate two different methodological approaches. On the one hand, I am using a more classical neuroscience approach that nowadays is called first-person social neuroscience. In this approach, experiments look at behavioral, brain, physiological, and biological mechanisms of one person that is in isolation. For example, we put a person into the fMRI scanner and we investigate the neural correlates of seeing movies or pictures, listening to sounds, or reading.

On the other hand, I would also like to emphasize a more recent development in social neuroscience, which nowadays is also called second person social neuroscience. This approach is really concerned with direct interactions between individuals, and in that sense measures the behavioral, brain, physiological, and biological substrates of social interaction in two (or more) people at the same time. For example, we measure brain activity with fNIRS hyperscanning in parents and their children simultaneously while they engage in cooperative decision-making. In doing this, we are specifically concentrating on synchrony as a new measure of interpersonal attunement, interpersonal communication, and ultimately also as a measure of relationship quality.

To follow the fundamental aim of social neuroscience, we are combining the above neuroscience techniques with methods derived from psychology, and in particular classical measures from attachment theory. Attachment theory postulates that a strong emotional and physical bond to at least one primary caregiver is critical to personal development. Our aim thereby is to derive a social neuroscience of human attachment, or in other words, to describe the biological and brain mechanisms underlying human attachment bonds.

To do so, we have started using self-report questionnaires of attachment, which are quite prominent in social psychology. However, by measuring attachment with questionnaires, we can only asses a certain spectrum of experiences, variables, or personality constructs. Therefore, we are nowadays also applying semi-narrative measures like interviews — such as the adult attachment interview –, or similar techniques for adolescents and children. By combining both questionnaires and semi-narrative measures, we can see whether they converge, and if not, what the differences found by these various approaches can tell us about attachment, and how it is represented on the neural and biological level.

What have you been working on recently?

On the one hand, my research has been focusing on describing the neural basis of human attachment over the course of development. Therefore, I have been moving from predominantly assessing adults towards also investigating adolescents and children by using a first-person social neuroscience approach. For example, we have been looking at brain activity using fMRI during social feedback processing and self- and other-representation as a function of inter-individual differences in attachment in adolescents ages 12 to 19 as well as children ages 8 to 12. We hope that these investigations will help us better understand how early attachment experiences translate into expectations about future relationships, and how such process manifests themselves on the brain level.

On the other hand, we have advanced second-person social neuroscience by assessing synchrony in parent-child pairs as a function of parent-child relationship quality, and particularly parent-child attachment. This has mostly been done so far with parent-child pairs, where the parent is the mother.

We are now also conducting studies where the parent is the father to see how attachment manifests itself in this kind of relationship, because fathers have only quite recently been included in attachment theory and are nowadays thought to play an important, if not an equal role to mothers.

Finally, we are also moving into the area of intergenerational transmission of attachment, which means that we are investigating how attachment from one generation is transmitted to the next. This is an open question in attachment theory and currently strongly debated. According to the sensitivity hypothesis, one prominent variable that determines the degree of attachment security that is passed from the parent to the child is parental sensitive behavior towards the child.

However, one problem with the sensitivity hypothesis is that it can only explain a limited amount of variance in the above equation. Consequently, there is a lot of variance that is not attributed at the moment. We are trying to get at this unexplained variance by using other measures, for example, brain activity or brain-to-brain synchrony. Furthermore, we are nowadays also using an epigenetic approach, which looks at the differential pattern of DNA transcription as a function of inter-individual differences in attachment. Thus, we can look directly at the interaction between genetic and environmental variables.

We published a first study on associations between epigenetic modification in two candidate genes in adults, and are currently trying to replicate and extend these findings in a longitudinal dataset in children from birth to age 9.

Is it accurate to suggest that social neuroscience shows that humans are fundamentally a social species?

Yes, I think that social neuroscience has indeed shown that we are intrinsically social, that we are wired for being social. Such biological predisposition for being social likely has its origins in the fact that humans, as compared to other mammals, are born relatively prematurely and therefore cannot survive without care and protection from others. Furthermore, because humans have a very long developmental period, we rely upon care, protection, and guidance from others beyond survival for many years. Thus, what counts for us is not only to have close social bonds from very early on, but also to have high quality social bonds that nurture us and positively support our physiological and psychological development.

We can see the unique needs for social connection of the human species when we consider some of its unique and unusual characteristics from an evolutionary perspective — most of which are related to ensuring intensive long-term care for offspring. For example, humans are among the only 3–5% of mammalian species that form prolonged monogamous pair bonds and that manifest extended paternal care.

Furthermore, humans are among the only 5 species where menopause has been observed in natural populations (all of the other 4 species being whales). What the above considerations suggest is that in humans, close social bonds are not only crucial in early life to ensure survival. The need for social connection extends way beyond infancy to close social bonds between romantic partners (i.e. parents) and between grandparents and grandchildren. And of course, the higher the quality of such bonds across the life span, the better.

What remains to be answered is the question of why humans have such a long developmental period that necessitates such intense and prolonged social care and protection. One potential explanation is the duration of human brain development. We now know that human brain development is by no means complete when human infants are born. This is probably due to the fact that the child’s head would not fit through the birth canal anymore had the brain to be fully developed at the time of birth. Furthermore, brain development crucially depends on environmental input, much of which only happens at later developmental stages — for example through interactions with friends, peers, and romantic partners. In humans, brain development therefore takes more than 20, maybe even more than 30 years. And during this time, a stable social environment that beneficially influences social cognitive emotional learning appears vital.

So all of the above really speaks of the importance of social connection and the fact that humans are made for connecting with others. We can also see that humans are truly wired for connection, because we start feeling bad very quickly — both psychologically and physically — if these social connections are removed. Loneliness is a serious current public-health problem that can decrease the likelihood of survival of up to 50%.

How do you see modern culture impacting our social connections?

Unfortunately, loneliness is on the rise. We are in fact talking about a loneliness epidemic, because so many people are affected — some numbers point to 22%-50% of the US population indicating that they are feeling socially disconnected. We know that being socially disconnected has the same detrimental effects on health as, for example, smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and is more predictive of early death than the effects of air pollution or physical inactivity. A recent meta-analysis involving 70 studies representing more than 3.4 million individuals primarily from North America, but also from Europe, Asia and Australia, found that those classified as lonely had a 26% higher risk of dying, and those living alone a 32% higher chance of dying, after accounting for differences in age and health status. So this really is a serious issue that not only affects older people, but any age range.

It is not entirely clear how to address this issue, because the causes for the rise in loneliness are manifold. On the one hand, loneliness in the US has been linked to the simple fact that more Americans are living alone than ever before. This development, in turn, has been associated with Americans marrying later, having fewer children, divorcing at higher rates, and living longer. All of the latter factors increase the likelihood of living alone, even if only temporary. Furthermore, there is the notion that the more technologically connected we become, the more socially isolated from each other we find ourselves. Modern technology indeed simplifies many aspects of our lives, but it also removes the necessity for social connection for many tasks, which increases the chances for social disconnection.

On the other hand, we should keep in mind that loneliness particularly affects the poor, unemployed, displaced and migrant populations. These people have fewer social interactions to begin with, and their social disconnection is oftentimes externally imposed rather than personally chosen. We should therefore particularly focus on these vulnerable populations when it comes to prevention and intervention.

What do you think the most important discoveries have been in social neuroscience so far? How do you see these findings impacting our lives in the future?

I think that social neuroscience has generally increased our understanding of how connected we really are, of how strongly our biology depends on the social environment we live in. Although it has been stated long before that humans are social beings, we nowadays have the tools to scientifically investigate and prove such concept.

Luckily, I was doing my PhD at a time when new neuroscientific methods were becoming more widely available. These methods allow us to look into live brains, especially methods such as fMRI or EEG and, more recently, fNIRS. We thus have the really unique opportunity to look into a brain while it is actually computing something, including social information. These days we can even look at two brains simultaneously and see how they compute social information together — maybe even how they co-create something new out of their social connection.

I think that some of the major insights social neuroscience offered so far are related to the description of the neural basis of interpersonal or pro-social behaviors comprising, for example, empathy (i.e. feeling what another person is feeling), compassion (i.e. the motivation to help others that are suffering), and theory of mind (i.e. mentally inferring another person’s state).

With the help of social neuroscience, we can nowadays answer questions like what makes us more or less empathetic or compassionate, how we mentally represent ourselves and others, and how impairments in these processes could explain anti-social behavior.

In terms of attachment, social neuroscience is starting to reveal associations between the quality of early infant-caregiver relations and brain anatomy and function across the life span. Such knowledge can be used to derive future prevention and intervention strategies and to inform policy making regarding child development.

More generally speaking, I think that the field of social neuroscience has the potential of profoundly influencing political decisions in the future. For example, many social neuroscientists stood together to protest about the policy of separating immigrant children from their parents at the border by referring to compelling scientific evidence for long-term detrimental mental and physical effects of early life traumatic experiences. Accordingly, in the future, it will be important to not only generate scientific knowledge and to publish it in scientific journals, but to communicate these findings to the general public and policymakers for practical application.

Interview by Natalia Lomaia, edited by Angela Barrett (UCL) Please click here for the UCL link.

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