|Dr. Josh Davis|
This year’s Social and Affective Neuroscience
(SAN) meeting felt like one of those times in history when it was clear that a field was about to explode, in size, reach, and importance. It was plain to see that the number of labs and researchers has been growing dramatically and the field is attracting some of the brightest young minds of the generation.
A promising sign for NeuroLeadership
was that the areas neuroscientists are choosing to study are sharing more and more overlap with the interests of those in leadership. The sessions dealt with themes that are already strong within the leadership domain, such as empathy, social interaction, and self-control, as well as themes that leadership is only starting to connect with, such as understanding the developing brain throughout life, the temporal dynamics of emotions, and the roles of neuro-hormones.
Highlights for me included Jamil Zaki
and Jason Mitchell’s
discussion about when empathy is accomplished by each of two distinct brain systems. One system deals with simulating the other person’s experience, and thus vicariously feeling what another feels, and the other is more cognitive, having to do with inferring the other’s mental state. A lesson we might draw from their work is that because these strategies for empathy rely on different brain systems, it seems reasonable that they need not function optimally at the same time, and that there are at least two ways to get to the same social goal.
Second, was Pranjal Mehta
and colleagues’ findings that through administering testosterone, you can cause people to become more sensitive to status relevant events, like winning and losing.
Finally, there was a riveting keynote debate regarding whether or not mirror neurons should be said to exist, and how they work, if they do. After nearly 20 years of mirror neuron research, Christian Keysers
and Geoff Bird
discussed the mechanisms behind these neurons. Mirror neurons are neurons that have historically been recognized as involved in action planning, which also fire when the same action is perceived in another, or performed by the self. Both speakers agreed that there are a small percentage of action-planning neurons that do so. At question was whether these neurons are a special type of neuron that humans are endowed with for the purpose of understanding others, or whether these neurons have simply come, over time and life experience, to be associated with (and thus activated by) perceiving the same actions performed by others.
Promising directions included new technological advances enabling two interacting people to be scanned at the same time in an MRI scanner. Although, this technology is currently limited to studying phenomena that can occur between two people lying in the awkward or intimate (depending on the context) situation of being face to face on their sides inside the bore of a scanner, only inches apart, the types of brain processes involved in human connection that will soon be amenable to fMRI study is exciting to contemplate.
Other research, presented in over 150 posters, included new directions we are sure to hear more about. Posted topics included the neuroscience of culture, health, person perception, and choice, among several. For example, findings by Murata and colleagues suggested that coming from an Asian culture may help a person more effectively shift brain responses while attempting to suppress emotions than coming from a European American culture. And, Baumgartner, Schiller, and colleagues found a brain region that when inhibited – with transcranial magnetic stimulation – causes people to treat others from their in-group and out-group relatively more equally than they otherwise likely would.
A great many researchers well known to those in the NeuroLeadership community were central figures there, including Kevin Ochsner
, Naomi Eisenberger
, and Elliot Berkman
. The sense of being among the sources of the new science was palpable. The field of Social and Affective Neuroscience is tackling the topics that NeuroLeaders simply must follow as they develop their expertise.
by Josh David Ph.D
Josh is a member of the NeuroLeaderhip Institute faculty
and lead professor for the Certificate in the Foundations of Neuroleadership