Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Imagine All the People

Neuroimaging Evidence for Memory’s Role in Navigating the Social World

R. Nathan Spreng, PhD, Cornell University


When remembering or imaging a possible event, the thoughts and actions of other people are often central. The ability to accurately predict other people’s behavior is essential for successful social navigation, with far-reaching and long-lasting impact. A convergence between memory and social cognition has been hypothesized to facilitate the integration of personal and interpersonal information to provide a means for personal experiences to become social conceptual knowledge. This knowledge, in turn, may inform strategic social behavior in support of personal goals. In this talk, I will present evidence for a shared neural substrate for remembering events from the personal past (autobiographical memory) and inferring the thoughts and feelings of other people (mentalizing). I will demonstrate this shared functional neuroanatomy in, 1) a meta-analysis of independent task domains, 2) an empirical study of subjects performing both tasks, and, 3) examining the intrinsic organization of the brain using resting-state functional connectivity. In a fourth study, the unique role of interpersonal information was examined in a social imagination task. I provide evidence that brain activity alone can reveal who someone is thinking about. Further, specific brain regions code personality traits and the brain combines these personality traits to represent a unique individual. The brain then uses this “personality model” to predict their thoughts and actions in a novel scenario. Overall, the studies demonstrate important insight into the functional role of the default network in cognition and argue for a new perspective within social cognitive neuroscience, emphasizing the importance of memory to social cognition.