The social brain

Prof. Frank Van Overwalle, Social Neuroscience, Faculty of Education Sciences and Psychology (PE)
Prof. Marie Vandekerckhove Department of Biological Psychology (EXTO), Faculty of Education Sciences and Psychology (PE)
Prof. Peter Mariën, Ziekenhuis Netwerk Antwerpen, Neurology, Belgium, Neuropsychology and Neurology.

"Women like to shop" and "Americans are fat" are examples of stereotypes. "My friend is handsome" and "My mother is anxious" are judgments about people we know well, which often also are quite accurate. We use stereotypes judgments about people to navigate through the social world. But what happens when we get information that goes against these stereotypes? Are all stereotypes and judgments resistant to change and how can we investigate this? How are stereotypes and judgments made in our brains? Where are the brain areas that make social judgments, and where are the groups and people we judge? How do we control our social behavior and the social context, and how do group norms have an impact on us? These are some of the questions that this project tries to answer.


The project is supported by researchers specialized in social neuroscience who study the mystery of the social brain. In social neuroscience, behavioral experiments and state-of-the art neuroimaging techniques like fMRI or TMS are used to explore which parts of our brains are active during certain social and cognitive processes. This tells us how we deal with other people, and the underlying mechanisms in our brains. For instance, what mechanisms ensure that we understand our own behavior and that of others in terms of their thoughts, intentions, interests, character traits.


Answers to these questions can provide information on a wide spectrum of topics such as mind reading (how spontaneous people infer goals and desires by observing them), autism (the lack of understanding of others) and paranoia (seeing too many hidden motives in others). Where we store information about traits and other people can tell us much about potential effects of brain damage by an accident or a stroke, and what impact this has on the social functioning of the patient.


The Person in the Brain

PI: Frank Van Overwalle
Researcher: Elien Heleven

The brain of monkeys, primates and humans has evolved according to its own logic: these species had to learn to live together in large groups with a complex cooperation. To achieve this goal, better and larger brains were needed, that could remember their most reliable collaborators or most dangerous adversaries. Where is this knowledge about agents located in the brain? Is this knowledge encoded in the brain for known as well as unknown agents? Are there also knowledge codes for the traits that agents possess? What are other characteristics that we encode and remember about other agents?

Social Perspective taking: How do we see others? About true and false thinking

PI: Frank Van Overwalle
Researcher: Ceylan Ozdem

Several neuroscientific studies have suggested that there are important similarities between mere cognitive processes such as attention orientation, and socio-cognitive processes such as inferring intentions, beliefs, wishes of others (termed 'mentalizing'). The tasks that reveal each of these processes show a very similar pattern of brain activation. Differences in attention orientation are potentially also related to differences in autism-related traits. One of the major hypotheses about this functional overlap, is that the understanding of behavior of others (or mentalizing) originated from evolutionary more primitive skills such as automatically directing attention to external, biologically relevant stimuli (or attention orientation). Attention orientation can therefore be considered as the building block for more complex, social-cognitive (e.g. empathic and communication) skills.

The role of the cerebellum in social cognition: How the little brain gets a bigger role

PIs: Frank Van Overwalle & Peter Mariën

A recent meta-analysis shows that the cerebellum plays a role in social cognition. Especially when abstract and complex judgments are made such as permanent trait inferences about people, or thoughts about our own past and future. What does this mean for social judgments? Is the cerebellum really necessary for such judgments, or is it just a tool that facilitates these judgments? And how does the cerebellum intervene on social judgments?



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