Individual neurons are responsible for complex social reasoning in humans, according to a recent study by American neuroscientists. Each of them performs different tasks, but by combining their activity we are able to recognize and predict the hidden beliefs and thoughts of other people. This ability is crucial for our social development.
A group of specialists led by Ziv Williams, associate professor of neurosurgery at Harvard Medical School, has succeeded in identifying individual neurons critical to human social reasoning. According to a Press release, It is a cognitive process that forces us to recognize the hidden thoughts of other people. The study has been published in the journal Nature.
According to scientists, the complex neural network of social reasoning can function as an integrated whole and, at the same time, work in separate and specialized units.
It is that each neuron encodes different bits of information, but combining the calculations of all neurons gives a detailed and accurate representation of the content of another person’s beliefs and thoughts. At the same time, the neural network provides an exact prediction about the character of these beliefs, separating them between true and false.
Although in the previously mentioned process the system works as a whole, integrating the task of each individual neuron, at the same time there is a very clear specialization.
The scientists identified neurons that are activated only by evaluating that a belief is false, others that create representations of elements, some that perform several functions at the same time and others that separate their own thoughts from those of others, for example.
Precisely one of the issues that stands out in this study from previous research is that previously groups of neurons related to social reasoning had been identified, but individual neurons with specific functions had not been able to separate.
Individual neurons, even within a very small area of the brain, perform very different tasks. As the researchers explain, not being able to delve into the calculations of specific neurons, it is very complex to build an understanding of the cognitive processes that underlie human social behavior.
In the study, the scientists worked with volunteers who had microelectrodes placed in the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex. The devices recorded the behavior of individual neurons as people listened to stories and answered questions about them.
In addition, the participants had to make inferences and analysis around the beliefs of others after listening to each story.
The recording of neuronal activity allowed to verify the presence of individual neurons that reliably encode information about the beliefs of others, in very varied scenarios. These neurons distinguish representations related to their own beliefs from those that come from other people.
According to neuroscientists, tracking coding dynamics shows the way in which neurons represent the content of others’ beliefs and, at the same time, accurately predict whether they are true or false.
Applications and importance
Now, the new research will shed light on specific aspects that shape the way in which we relate to other people and understand their thoughts and beliefs.
For example, this ability is very important to distinguish different mental and behavioral disorders, in which affected people have problems understanding the attitudes and thoughts of others, generating serious problems of social adaptation.
Beyond its neuroscientific importance, a thorough understanding of social reasoning is vital in multiple fields and specialties such as child development, economics or sociology. At the same time, it will allow the development of more effective treatments for related pathologies, such as autism spectrum disorders.
Single-neuronal predictions of others’ beliefs in humans. Jamali, M., Grannan, B.L., Fedorenko, E., Williams, Z. et al. Nature (2021).DOI:https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-021-03184-0
Photo: Tumisu on Pixabay.
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.