A Brain Network for Social Perception

Summary: Different people have similar neural activity when processing social information. Researchers reveal the occipital and temporal lobes are important hubs for social information processing.

Source: University of Turku

A recent study conducted at the University of Turku in Finland shows that different people have similar brain activity when perceiving social situations. Researchers discovered an extensive neural network in the human brain that effectively processes various social information.

Social interaction is central to all aspects of human life. Interaction requires the perception and interpretation of the social environment as well as flexible reactions to other people’s behavior. The human brain is capable of such perception and decision-making automatically and rapidly.

However, the social information processing mechanisms of the brain remain unresolved.

The study conducted at the Turku PET Centre revealed an extensive neural network in the human brain that processes various social information. The study showed that the social perceptual world of humans consists of a limited set of main dimensions, such as antisocial behavior, sexual or affiliative behavior, and communication.

These social dimensions are processed in various brain regions located mainly in the back of the brain, more specifically in the occipital and temporal lobes.

With neuroimaging, researchers observed that brain activity in the brain regions important for social perception is synchronized between different individuals when they watch movies depicting social situations. The synchronization of brain activity means that the processing of information is, on average, similar between different individuals.

“Our findings indicate that the brains of different people process different social features similarly, and certain regions in the back of the brain are the most important hubs for social perception.

“People perceive things related to concrete and immediate action, such as pain and violence, more similarly than abstract social features, such as insecurity or trustworthiness of other people,” says Doctoral Researcher Severi Santavirta from the Turku PET Centre at the University of Turku.

Even though the study evaluated the occurrence of over a hundred social features in different social situations, the researchers discovered that the social perceptual world of humans consists of a limited set of main dimensions.

The existence of these main dimensions means that for social information processing, it is important to perceive the basic elements of a social situation that create the basis for interpreting the situation.

This shows brain scans and clips from movies
Brain networks for social perception. The image presents the left and right hemispheres of the brain. The brighter the colour is in the brain region, the more types of social information are processed in the region. Credit: Severi Santavirta

“When we studied the perception of different social features, we discovered that certain features are often perceived simultaneously, such as sexuality and passion, which in practice always occurred simultaneously.

“Based on these simultaneous occurrences, we were able to group the social features to a limited set of main dimensions. Examples of such features are antisocial behaviour, sexuality or affection, eating, humor or playfulness, communication and bodily movement.

“These main dimensions represent the main areas of social interaction and the perception of them enables rapid interpretation of social situations,” continues Santavirta.

Credit: Lauri Nummenmaa

In the study, short movie clips of different social situations were shown to 97 participants while researchers measured the participants’ brain activity with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) in real time. Another group of participants were asked to evaluate the occurrence of over a hundred social features in the same movie clips.

“The synchronization of brain responses across individuals demonstrates how similarly we perceive our social environment. Other people are our most important context and synchronized perception of the world is essential for working together,” notes Professor Lauri Nummenmaa from the Turku PET Centre.

The results were published in the NeuroImage journal.

About this social neuroscience research news

Author: Tuomas Koivula
Source; University of Turku
Contact: Tuomas Koivula – University of Turku
Image: The image is credited to Severi Santavirta

Original Research: Open access.
Functional organization of social perception networks in the human brain” by Severi Santavirta et al. NeuroImage


Functional organization of social perception networks in the human brain

Humans rapidly extract diverse and complex information from ongoing social interactions, but the perceptual and neural organization of the different aspects of social perception remains unresolved.

We showed short movie clips with rich social content to 97 healthy participants while their haemodynamic brain activity was measured with fMRI. The clips were annotated moment-to-moment for a large set of social features and 45 of the features were evaluated reliably between annotators.

Cluster analysis of the social features revealed that 13 dimensions were sufficient for describing the social perceptual space. Three different analysis methods were used to map the social perceptual processes in the human brain.

Regression analysis mapped regional neural response profiles for different social dimensions. Multivariate pattern analysis then established the spatial specificity of the responses and intersubject correlation analysis connected social perceptual processing with neural synchronization.

The results revealed a gradient in the processing of social information in the brain. Posterior temporal and occipital regions were broadly tuned to most social dimensions and the classifier revealed that these responses showed spatial specificity for social dimensions; in contrast Heschl gyri and parietal areas were also broadly associated with different social signals, yet the spatial patterns of responses did not differentiate social dimensions.

Frontal and subcortical regions responded only to a limited number of social dimensions and the spatial response patterns did not differentiate social dimension. Altogether these results highlight the distributed nature of social processing in the brain.

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