Biological Explanations of Social Cognition


Role of the Amygdala

Adolphs et al (1995)

Studied a 30 year old known as SM. Their amygdala was disturbed by a metabolic disorder. SM could not recognise fear in a series of photos shown to them, they also did not experience fear. The same was found in another patient, NM. NM had a damaged amygdala and couldn't recognise fear in facial expressions or body postures. This meant that NM and SM could not empathise. 

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Neural Activity

FMRIs provide valuable information about the activity of different parts of the brain during the completion of tasks. FMRIs therefore can show the effects of cognitive development, tasks stimulated in the first person (demostrator faces the same way as you) and and third person views (demonstrator faces the opposite way, a mirror image).

Hesslow (2002)

When actions are stimulated (through watching a demonstrator), we active the motor areas of the brain in such a way that it resembles the neural activiation of doing the actual action.

Mesiter et al (2004)

FMRIs scans were carried out when participants played the same piece of music under two conditions:

  • On a silent keyboard
  • Imagining they were playing the piece

It was found that similar front-parietal neurons were activated, regardless of the condition.

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Evaluating the role of neural activity (1)

Animal studies support the role of neural activity.

Rizzolatti et al (1996)

Macaque monkeys observed actions carried out by other monkeys and two ares of the brain were activated:

  • Pre-motor cortex
  • Superior temporal sulcus

Sensorimotor neurons in the pre-motor cortex are activated and these are known as mirror neurons. These fire when the monkey observes or carries out an action.

Evidence suggests people with autism do not have mirror neurons (fully functioning), this could explain why people with autism find it difficult to interact.

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Evaluating the role of neural activity (2)

The role of neural activity is supported by emprical evidence.

Levison and Ruef (1992)

When two people experience the same emotion, they are more accurate at determining each other's intentions. This is supported by FMRI scans.

Morrison et al (2004)

Compared the neural pattern of activiation during the actual experience of pain in another person.

  • G1, FMRI scans while experiencing a sharp probe, similar to a needle
  • G2, FMRI scans while watching someone else experience a sharp probe

Similar patterns of activity in the anterior angulated cortext and the anterior insula in both conditions.

Replicated by Jackson et al (2005) and Botvinick et al (2005). There are quality differences between the areas of the ACC activated, which could be a defense mechanism to allow us to empathise but not suffer too much distress. 

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Evaluating the role of neural activity (3)

Blakemore and Firth (2003)

The right inferior parietal cortex allows us to distinguish self produced actions from the actions of others.

Jackson et al (2005)

The right inferior parietal cortex is only activiated when we see actions from another's perspective. It is activated when we imagine how another person might feel in an unpleasant situation, but not when we imagine ourselves in the same situation. 

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Evaluating the biological explanation of social co

Further research is needed into the biological aspect of social cognition. 

Dinstein et al (2008)

We know mirror neurons are important but we don't know how important.

Numerous studies use FMRI scans which have shown mirror neurons are needed to imitate behaviour. However, there is not a lot of research into mirror neurons as it is still a relatively new concept.

To understand the intentions of others, we must also have the ability to not only understand our own intentions, but also the intentions of others. FMRI scans show we use mirror neurons in the premotor, parietal and anterior cingulated cortex. These are activated differently depending on if first or third person perspective is used.

FMRI scans are used which are very scientific and have been used on humans, monkeys and humans with autism. But small sample sizes and case studies were used for the majority of the studies which reduces the validity of the studies. 

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