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Essays in Social NeuroscienceReview - Essays in Social Neuroscience
by John T. Cacioppo and Gary G. Bernston (Editors)
MIT Press, 2004
Review by Peter Zachar, Ph.D.
Feb 23rd 2005 (Volume 9, Issue 8)

Modern science was founded on the mechanistic perspective which conceptualizes nature as a kind of machine. The important thing about machines is that they operate according to rules, and we can figure out those rules. It's a good metaphor. Unfortunately, it is a metaphor that has sometimes been applied too concretely - especially when the organic world has been conceptualized as being no more than an incredibly complex kind of clock.  In contrast to clocks, organic machines are interactive machines that develop over time.  The interactive and developmental difference between them and clocks makes all the difference in the world.  One of the key themes of Essays in Social Neuroscience is that if we want to understand more about creatures such as mammals by studying their nervous systems, unless we study these nervous systems in their social contexts, our understanding will be empirically inadequate.  Figuring out the workings of the nervous system requires methodologies different from the engineering type approaches that would be used to figure out the workings of a clock.  A second theme is that the methodological tools for developing an 'ecologically valid' understanding of nervous system functioning are becoming increasingly available.

This interactive viewpoint is common to various theoretical models, including general systems theory, the biopsychosocial model, the biosocial model, neural Darwinism, developmental psychopathology, evolutionary psychology, and the ecology of neuroscience.  The term 'social neuroscience' is intended to carry an echo of the cognitive neuroscience revolution, and hint that social neuroscience is the next big frontier.  Although the aim of the larger project is to reduce the mutual antipathy between conventional neuroscientists and social scientists, the primary audience of this book is neuroscientists.  The new frontier clearly has to be initially settled by those neuroscientists, cognitive neuroscientists, affective neuroscientists, biological psychologists, ethologists, and health psychologists whose research questions have direct biological concomitants.

Cacioppo and Bernston make a persuasive claim that we will not be able to model nervous system functioning as it works over time unless we consider the role played by social factors. Important individual differences in how nervous systems work appear only when we examine psychosocial context. If we ignore that context, significant variance will be mistaken for error variance, i.e., important biological events will be invisible to us even though they are quite evident when studied from the appropriate vantage point.

In theory, social neuroscience should begin to inform social psychology as well.  One (but not the only) way that social neuroscience might influence research at a molar level of analysis is suggested by Daniel Schacter.  His main point can be summarized as a claim that scientific psychologists seeking to understand cognitive processes are always looking for new and improved ways to categorize their subject matter, and sometimes suggestions for lumping and splitting the phenomenon of interest in better ways can be gleaned from research at a lower level of analysis, such as one of the various neuroscience levels.  Scientifically, we should be open to using any and all information that helps us better understand human psychology. Schacter's example shows how the broad construct of semantic encoding can be decomposed into psychologically relevant subcomponents based partly on neuroimaging research.

A prior tome titled Foundations in Social Neuroscience collected 83 previously published papers.  The current slim volume contains a short chapter by all 12 editors of the larger book.  These chapters are also surprisingly uneven - in a way that goes beyond the fact that a diverse range of specialities is represented.  Based on a pattern established early in the book, it looks as if the plan was for each chapter to begin with a personal account of how the author began doing research that could be called 'social neuroscience,' followed by a nontechnical summary of her or his research program.  What counts as a personal account and what counts as nontechnical was, however, interpreted in different ways.  The personal accounts run the gamut from autobiographical self-disclosures about important inspirations and influences on their work, through more bland academic biographies to no mention of personal history at all.  Many chapters are relatively technical - and these more biologically-based chapters require a background in genetics, endocrinology, and anatomy that many social scientists are unlikely to have. 

With respect to the notion that we cannot understand nervous system function without studying social context, the more technical the chapter, the better it seems to exemplify social neuroscience.  Many of the early chapters delve into basic biological details, and they are the better chapters because they are more conceptually rich with respect to the purpose of the book.  A few competently written chapters are nontechnical without being dumbed down, but they are also less relevant to social neuroscience per se.  These would be chapters by Daniel Schacter and Richard Davidson.  Ralph Adolphs wrote a chapter that could be classified with the two just mentioned, with the exception that it is also relevant to social neuroscience.

The book includes a fascinating array information that, as a whole, should alter our ideas of how organic machines operate.  For example, Michael Meaney demonstrates that some mammals exhibit individual differences in reactivity to stressful events that can be traced to the functioning of their endocrine system. Differences in how the endocrine system is regulated are partly influenced by whether a certain section of DNA that promotes gene activation was turned on during a critical period in development. The turning on of this sequence is directly related to the specific kind of maternal care the mammal receives during that critical period.  There is some reason to believe that this fine tuning of the stress response is calibrated by maternal care because the quality of that care is itself affected by the environment and is a reliable predictor of the kind of environment the animal will face throughout life.  Technical concepts such as epigenesis, chromatin remodeling, glucocorticoid receptor expression, and methylation of cytosine are crucial aspects of the argument, and their inclusion enhances the persuasiveness of the social neuroscience proposal.

In another of these early chapters, Stephen Suomi discusses the biosocial underpinnings of aggression in monkeys.  He shows how behavioral outcome is a function of both genes and social environment.  In genetics, the concept of pleiotropy refers to situations where the same string of DNA has different effects depending on where and when it is transcripted.  In a parallel fashion, Suomi show that different versions of the same gene can lead to better and worse behavioral outcomes depending on the attachment context in which they operate.  Monkeys with a short version of a particular gene do much worse socially if raised by peers compared to peer-raised monkeys with a longer version of that gene.  Those same short allele monkeys do better socially than the long allele monkeys if both are raised by a mother and develop a secure attachment to her.  He notes that the maternal behaviors regulating the nature of attachment are themselves socially 'inherited' from generation to generation, leading to the interesting deduction that a genetically influenced propensity to aggression is regulated by a nongenetic mechanism of inheritance.

The first six chapters jointly cover how biological architecture is partly a consequence of specific social events, how we are designed for certain kinds of social contexts, and how those contexts regulate biological function.  Maternal care figures heavily in these chapters, but ongoing relationships and the cumulative stresses to which we are exposed throughout life are also mentioned.  No three page summary can adequately communicate the extent to which these are not merely vague speculations. Important details about physiological and neuropsychological structure are unambiguously related to events that can only be conceptualized from a molar social perspective.   Included in this group are also chapters by Esther Sternberg, Bruce McEwan, C. Sue Carter and Martha McClintock.

It isn't a long book, and I don't intend to write a long review.  There is a very nice concluding chapter by Shelley Taylor call The Accidental Neuroscientist. In it she recounts how her work in clinical health psychology raised some questions about the workings of the immune system which, unexpectedly, led her to develop a specialization in a new kind of biological psychology, namely psychoneuroimmunology.  The account is well written, and summarizes a theme that runs through many of the personal accounts, specifically, that research currently labeled as belonging to social neuroscience was not originally intended to occupy this territory.  The editors, I suspect, intend to leave readers with the impression that research in social neuroscience should not be left to chance.  Rather than emerging haphazardly in a diverse set of specialties, it should be a specialty itself.  The accidental social neuroscientists of this generation should spawn the intentional social neuroscientists of the next generation.  Developing this specialty may require a different kind of training - one that is more interdisciplinary than is common in other areas of scientific psychology. 

It is a good plan, and hopefully it will come to fruition.  With this in mind, I would like to offer a few critical comments about the initial mapping of the terrain, and in doing so agree with some points made by Ralph Adolphs in his own chapter.  More than one author in this collection extols the virtues of interdisciplinary collaboration and how their own research program gained depth by drawing on the intellectual resources developed by experts in related areas. It is better to not reinvent any wheels. As Adolphs suggests, and congruent with the intellectual tradition of the Damasio environ in which he works, the intellectual resources developed by specialists in the philosophy of science and the philosophy of mind should also be a part of the interdisciplinary matrix.

In what could be considered a manifesto of the social neuroscience movement, Cacioppo and Bernston make a distinction between what they call substitutionism and reductionism. By substitutionism they mean the attempt to eliminate a higher level of analysis in favor of a lower level of analysis. By reductionism they mean a kind of pluralism in which information from multiple levels of analysis cross-fertilize each other.  Social neuroscience encourages neuroscientists to not ignore social factors, and this revised definition of reductionism attempts to make biological research more palatable to social scientists.  I don't believe that words have fixed meanings, and agree that creative changes of meaning are a part of intellectual progress.  All the same, there are well-developed traditions in philosophy that go by the names of nonreductive materialism and supervenience theory, not to mention explanatory pluralism, and these traditions have been talking about understanding higher levels of analysis in terms of lower levels without eliminating the higher level for quite some time. Eliminativism itself is an incredibly fertile perspective with roots in scientific psychology prior to its adoption in philosophy.  It has even been called the disappearance form of the identity theory, but conventional usage has settled on eliminativism. 

Idiosyncratic uses of terminology and hasty distinctions can work against interdisciplinary perspectives because rather than agreeing to use a common language, a new speciality begins on a trajectory that over time makes it more difficult to integrate the intellectual resources that were not consulted in the first place. A one sentence definition of substitutionism lacks the depth of an incisive Churchland-type eliminativism, and those who are limited to the abridged notion of 'substitutionism,' are less likely to benefit from the careful critiques of eliminativism that have been developed by philosophers. 

One would not want an emerging area to adopt some of the regrettable prejudices of experimental psychology with respect to the value of professional philosophical thinking.  These prejudices have been resisted by many researchers working in the cognitive neurosciences.  If their lead is followed by practitioners of social neuroscience, and backed up with respect for the efforts of professional philosophers in addition to an interest in philosophy, it will enhance the chances that conceptual progress in this terrain will be less 'accidental.'

 

© 2005 Peter Zachar

 

Peter Zachar, Ph.D. is an associate professor of psychology at Auburn University Montgomery.  He is a licensed psychologist with additional specializations in psychological measurement, the philosophy of science, and the philosophy of psychiatry.  He is the author of Psychological Concepts and Biological Psychiatry: A Philosophical Analysis


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