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Social Cognitive Neuroscience Lab
Department of Psychology, UCLA
1285 Franz Hall, Box 951563
Los Angeles, CA 90095-1563

Social Working Memory

Everyday social cognition involves a great deal of information juggling. Just as an example, consider a social gathering where multiple people, with different backgrounds and relationships with one another, all converse. To smoothly navigate this social scenario, you will need to keep track of who said what, as well as why he or she said it. As the complexity and number of people in the situation increases, so will your need to manage social information in mind. How do we pull off such complex social cognition on the fly? In this line of research, I examine the brain mechanisms that support the moment-to-moment maintenance and manipulation of social cognitive information, or ‘social working memory.’

Social by Default

The overwhelming majority of neuroscience research on social cognition measures neural activity during a task. This makes a lot of sense—it is good to know that the neural activation you observe is tied to a psychological state that, as an experimenter, you have induced. This paradigm, however, has overshadowed a very interesting phenomenon that may reveal a great deal about social cognition. That is, the medial frontoparietal system that activates during social cognition tasks is also consistently active when we are not performing any experimental task at all. This phenomena is so robust that it has even lead neuroscientists to describe this network as ‘the default network’, since it is consistently active by default, in the absence of other instructions (for example, when participants just stare at a fixation crosshair like the one above). Why would the same neurocognitive system that activates during experimentally induced mental state processing also robustly engage by default? This question has been one of the greatest mysteries in social neuroscience to date. In this line of research, I examine the social psychological functions of activating the medial frontoparietal network by default.

Mental State Processing and Affect

The social cognition literature is riddled with curious results tying mental state processing to affect. For example, when people engage in more (versus less) mental state processing about a target, they feel more emotionally connected to the target, experience more empathy for the target’s suffering, and are more morally upset about the target’s unfair treatment (e.g., Waytz et al., 2010). Similarly, affective responses are exacerbated when they are caused intentionally, by another mind (e.g., Gray & Wegner, 2008). While it is clear that mental state processing influences affective responses, the underlying mechanisms that support these effects remain largely unknown. In this line of research, I examine how the brain may be designed to tie social cognitive thinking to affective experiences.