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Paying attention to social meanings: fMRI studies

Brain systems and attentional focus to social/affective or cognitive meanings

Animations of simple geometric shapes are readily interpreted as animate agents engaged in meaningful social interactions. Such animations have been shown to activate brain regions implicated in the detection of animate motion, in understanding the intentions of others as well as areas commonly linked to the processing of social and emotional information. However, attribution of animacy does not occur under all circumstances and the precise conditions under which specific regions are activated remains unclear.

We developed a a range of animations in which coloured shapes, or sprites, moved around in a space with some barriers to movement. The trajectories of the shapes were designed and empirically validated, as indicating affiliative or antagonistic social interactions as well as behaviours where the sprites moved wholly independently of each other. Live illustrative animations are running further down this entry (left to right: neutral, antagonistic, affiliative,).

In an fMRI study we manipulated viewers' perspective to assess the part played by selective attention. Participants were cued to attend either to spatial properties of the movements or to the kind of social behaviour it could represent. Activations that occurred to the initial cue, while observing the animations themselves and while responding to a post-presentation probe were analysed separately. Results showed that activity in the social brain network was strongly influenced by selective attention, and that remarkably similar activations were seen during film viewing and in response to probe questions. Our use of stimuli supporting rich and diverse social narratives likely enhanced the influence of top-down processes on neural activity in the social brain.

For a full report see

Tavares, P., Lawrence, A. D., and Barnard, P. J. (2008) Paying Attention to Social Meaning: an fMRI Study., Cerebral Cortex, 18(8), 1876-1885.


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Emotional Complexity and Neural Representation

According to theories of emotional complexity, individuals low in emotional complexity encode and represent emotions in visceral or action oriented terms, whereas individuals high in emotional complexity encode and represent emotions in a more differentiated way, using multiple emotion concepts. Again using fMRI, participants viewed valenced animated scenarios of simple ball-like figures attending either to social or spatial aspects of the interactions. Three examples shown above are (from left to right) of neutral affiliative and antagonistic interactions.

Participant's emotional complexity was assessed using Lane's Levels of Emotional Awareness Scale. (Lane, R. D., Quinlan, D. M., Schwartz, G. E., Walker, P. A., Zeitlin, S. B., 1990. The levels of emotional awareness scale: a cognitive -developmental measure of emotion. Journal of Personality Assessment, 55, 124-134.)

We found a distributed set of brain regions previously implicated in processing emotion from facial, vocal and bodily cues, in processing social intentions, and in emotional response, were sensitive to emotion conveyed by motion alone. Attention to social meaning amplified the influence of emotion in a subset of these regions. Critically, increased emotional complexity correlated with enhanced processing in a left temporal polar region implicated in detailed semantic knowledge; with a diminished effect of social attention; and with increased differentiation of brain activity between films of differing valence. Decreased emotional complexity was associated with increased activity in regions of pre-motor cortex. We argue from this evidence that neural coding of emotion in semantic vs. action systems varies as a function of emotional complexity, helping reconcile puzzling inconsistencies in neuropsychological investigations of emotion recognition.

Tavares, P., Barnard, P. & Lawrence, A (2010). Emotional Complexity and the Neural Representation of Emotion in Motion. Social, Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, doi: 10.1093/scan/nsq021.