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Neuroscience

Neuroscience

METHODS OF NEUROSCIENCE

APPLICATIONS OF NEUROSCIENCE TO THE SOCIAL SCIENCES

BIBLIOGRAPHY

The field of neuroscience reflects the interdisciplinary effort to understand the structure, function, physiology, biology, biochemistry, and pathology of the nervous system. From a social science perspective, however, neuroscience primarily refers to the study of the brain. Of interest is how the brain gives rise to learning, cognition, and behavior. The research of neuroscientists crosses many levels of analysis, ranging from molecular studies of genes to the study of social and ethical behavior. Within psychology, for example, behavioral neuroscientists use animal models to gain a better understanding of how genetic and brain processes influence behavior. Since the late 1980s, there has been a dramatic rise in the field of cognitive neuroscience, which combines cognitive psychology, neurology, and neuroscience to examine how brain activity gives rise to cognitive abilities (for example, memory, emotion, attention, language, consciousness).

Most recently, social neuroscience is an emerging field that uses the methods of neuroscience to understand how the brain processes social information. It involves scholars from widely diverse areas (for instance, social psychology, neuroscience, philosophy, anthropology, economics, sociology) working together and across levels of analysis to understand fundamental questions about human social nature. Social neuroscience merges evolutionary theory, experimental social cognition, and neuroscience to elucidate the neural mechanisms that support social behavior. From this perspective, just as there are dedicated brain mechanisms for breathing, walking, and talking, the brain has evolved specialized mechanisms for processing information about the social world, including the ability to know ones self, to know how one responds to another, and to regulate actions in order to coexist with other members of society. The problems that are studied by social neuroscience have been of central interest to social scientists for decades, but the methods and theories that are used reflect recent discoveries in neuroscience. Although in its infancy, there has been rapid progress in identifying the neural basis of many social behaviors (for reviews, see Adolphs 2003; Heatherton et al. 2004).

METHODS OF NEUROSCIENCE

The principles of how cells operate in the brain to influence behavior have been studied with great progress for more than a century, but it is only since the late 1980s that researchers have been able to study the working brain as it performs its vital mental functions. Brain activity is associated with changes in the flow of blood as it carries oxygen and nutrients to active brain regions. Brain imaging methods track this flow of blood to understand which areas of the brain are most active for a given task. Positron emission tomography (PET), the first imaging method developed, involves a computerized reconstruction of the brains metabolic activity by using a relatively harmless radioactive substance that is injected into the blood stream. A PET scanner detects this radiation and therefore can be used to map out brain activity in real time, which is a direct measure of blood flow. The use of radioactive substances, however, places an inherent limitation on the number of trials that can be conducted in a PET study, a potential limitation that is not present in functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Like PET, fMRI measures brain activity, but it is noninvasive (that is, nothing is injected into the blood stream). The fMRI process employs a strong magnetic field to assess changes in the oxygen level of blood at particular sites after they have become active, which is an indirect measure of blood flow.

Another set of techniques for assessing brain activity involves measuring electrical activity in the brain using an electroencephalogram (EEG). As a measure of specific mental states, an EEG is limited because the recordings reflect all brain activity and therefore are too noisy to isolate specific responses to particular stimuli. A more powerful method involves averaging together many trials and measuring the brain activity evoked for the brief periods of time following the start of the trial, resulting in measurements known as event-related potentials (ERPs). ERPs have proven to be especially useful for assessing the time course of cognitive processes, such as which aspects of a stimulus are processed first. A related method, magnetoencephalography (MEG), measures magnetic fields produced by the electrical activity of the brain. Both EEG and MEG provide excellent temporal resolution (that is, timing), yet limited spatial resolution (that is, the precise location of the activation). Brain imaging methods, such as fMRI and PET, provide much better spatial resolution than EEG or MEG, but at the cost of temporal resolution (that is, blood flow changes occur over several seconds following brain activity).

APPLICATIONS OF NEUROSCIENCE TO THE SOCIAL SCIENCES

The use of brain imaging techniques has allowed scientists to discover a great deal regarding the neural correlates of mental activity. For instance, cognitive neuroscientists have used these methods to better understand which brain regions are involved in memory, attention, visual perception, language, and many other psychological processes. More recently, neuroscience methods have been used to study topics of interest across the social sciences, such as political attitudes and decision-making, moral judgments, cooperation and competition, behavioral economics, addiction, and social cognition. For example, social psychologists have long been interested in understanding whether stereotypes reflect automatic (unconscious) or controlled (conscious) processes. Thus, social neuroscientists have begun to examine how various brain regions respond when people are making judgments of other people from various racial groups or people who possess various forms of stigma (such as status, class, disfigurement). A common finding is greater activity in the amygdala (a brain region associated with fear-based emotional responding) in response to observing faces of different races for people high in racial bias than for people low in racial bias (Eberhardt 2005).

Research within social neuroscience has often focused on the trade-off between primitive emotional responses and higher-level cognitive control. The latter reflects unique human capacities for self-reflection, understanding the minds of others, and engaging in self-control; each of these capacities ultimately depends on the intact functioning of the frontal lobes. It is likely that the methods of neuroscience will expand throughout the social sciences to address questions at a new level of analysis. As such, these methods can augment the traditional methods used to understand social behavior.

SEE ALSO Altruism; Depression, Psychological; Dopamine; Drugs of Abuse; Generosity/Selfishness; Hallucinogens; Happiness; Memory; Neuroeconomics; Semantic Memory; Sex and Mating

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Adolphs, Ralph. 2003. Cognitive Neuroscience of Human Social Behaviour. Nature Reviews Neuroscience 4 (3): 165178.

Eberhardt, Jennifer L. 2005. Imaging Race. American Psychologist 60 (2): 181190.

Heatherton, Todd F., C. Neil Macrae, and William M. Kelley. 2004. A Social Brain Sciences Approach to Studying the Self. Current Directions in Psychological Science 13 (5): 190193.

Todd F. Heatherton

Anne C. Krendl

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"Neuroscience." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Encyclopedia.com. 22 Sep. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

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"Neuroscience." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Retrieved September 22, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/applied-and-social-sciences-magazines/neuroscience

neuroscience

neuroscience is the study of all aspects of nerves and the nervous system, in health and in disease. It includes the anatomy, physiology, chemistry, pharmacology, and pathology of nerve cells; the behavioural and psychological features that depend on the function of the nervous system; and the clinical disciplines that deal with them, such as neurology, neurosurgery, and psychiatry.

See nervous system.

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neuroscience

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