Evidence from people with autism
Firth (2001) found that the amygdala, frontal cortex and parietal cortex are abnormal in people with autism.
- The amygdala is important in the recognition and interpretation of facial emotions and in organising emotional responses.
- The frontal cortex helps us to form an intergrated picture of our social environment.
- The parietal cortex allows us to distinguish ourselves from others.
This provides strong evidence that social cognition problems seen in autism are a result of the abnormal development of structures that are part of the brain network controlling social cognition in the normal brain.
It is also significant that autism involves a significant genetic factor. Concordance rates for monzygotic twins range from between 36-90% far higher than the concordance rate for dizygotic twins.
Evidence from Psychopaths
One previous explanation for psychopathic tendencies has been impairment in the development of a ToM. On the other hand, psychopaths are also known to be extremely good manipulators and decievers, which would imply that they have good skills in inferring the knowledge, needs, intentions, and beliefs of other people.
Therefore, it has been suggsted recently that ToM is made up of different aspects:
- A cognitive part - requires inferences about knowledge and beliefs
- Another part - requires the understanding of emotions
Dr Shamay-Tsoory, tested the hypothesis that impairment in the emotional aspects of ToM for psychopathic behaviour. They found the pattern of impairment in the psychopaths showed a remarkable similarity to those Ps with frontal lobe damage. This suggests that deficits in some aspects f ToM may be due to brain disfunction. This supports the biological explanation of at least certain aspects of social cognition.
Evidence from mirror neurons
Rizzolatti et al (1996) found mirror neurons when studying motor neurons in monkeys. They found that the same cells were activated both when the monkey reached for the food itself and when it observed a human doing the same. They called these mirror neurons.
Morrison et al (2004) compared the neural pattern of activation during the actual experience of pain and when observing anothers pain. Ps were given fMRI scans while experiencing a sharp probe. In a second condition, Ps were shown a video of someone being pricked with a needle. The scans showed similar patterns of neural activity in both conditions.
There are qualitative differences in the areas of the ACC activated when experiencing pain in the first person or the third person. This might be the mechanism that allows us to differentiate between empathetic responses to others pain and our own distress.
Evaluation of biological explanations
People with autism often have complex problems and there is considerable variation in the extent of autism in different people, so even though many brain abnormalities have been found they tend to be inconsistent across different studies. It is difficult therefore to identify the precise parts of the brain which are responsible for different aspects of social cognition.
Rizzolatti et al (1996) placed electrodes on monkeys brains. It is not possible to safely replicate this experiment in humans. There is no direct evidence of mirror neurones in humans. The use of animals in human psychology is not only a ethical issue but also in relation to generalising the results to humans.
The biological approach suggests that once we've located the mirror neurons and collected sufficent evidence regarding when and how they function, then we'll know all there is to know about social cognition. We are more than a collection of brain cells; we are made up of not only our psychology but also of our experiences, memories and culture.
This approach is deterministic as it suggests that mirror neurons are the deciding factor in social cognition and so cannot be changed. This completely opposes the idea of free will.
Evaluation of biological explanations
This approach is simplistic. For example, it doesn't explain why ToM is more advanced in children with older siblings (Perner) or why social skills training can aid social cognition. Alternatively, psychodynamic psychologists such as Bowlby, would say a lack of social cognition is due to poor attachment relationships (44 juvenile thieves study). These contradict the biologial explanation.
The mirror neuron system is not enough in itself to explain complex social cognition. Monkeys have mirror neurons but only limited social cognitions in areas such as deception. The human brain has evolved since monkeys.