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date: 15 September 2019

Epilogue

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter discusses the various aspects of social neuroscience as covered in this Handbook. Social neuroscience spans diverse species, disciplines, methods, and topics. Social species create organizations beyond the individual. These superorganismal structures evolved hand in hand with psychological, neural, hormonal, cellular, and genetic mechanisms to support them because the consequent social behaviors helped these organisms survive, reproduce, and care for offspring sufficiently long that they too reproduced. Social neuroscience seeks to specify the neural, hormonal, cellular, and genetic mechanisms underlying social behavior, and in so doing to understand the associations and influences between social and biological levels of organization. Social neuroscience, therefore, is a complex interdisciplinary perspective that demands theoretical, methodological, statistical, and inferential rigor to effectively integrate basic, clinical, and applied perspectives on the nervous system and brain.

Keywords: social neuroscience, brain, behavior, social processes, nervous system

Neuroscience refers to the collection of sciences that deal with the structure and function of the nervous system and brain. Neuroscience is a deeply interdisciplinary pursuit because the structure and function of the nervous system and brain are such complex topics of study and require so many disparate basic, clinical, and applied disciplines to cover the terrain.

Cross-cutting these diverse disciplinary perspectives are a set of foundational perspectives. In behavioral neuroscience, for instance, the nervous system and brain are viewed as instruments of sensation and response. Behavioral neuroscience therefore tends to emphasize topics such as reward, punishment, learning, sensation, hunger, thirst, pain, predation, thermoregulation, and reproduction—and on the neural mechanisms underlying these functions. Cognitive neuroscience emerged as a distinct perspective in which the brain is viewed as a solitary computer, with a focus on representations and processes such as attention, memory systems, heuristics, reasoning, decision making, and executive functioning—and on the mechanisms in the human brain that underlie these representations and processes. This Handbook of Social Neuroscience represents the maturation of a third broad perspective, one in which the emphasis is on the functions that emerge through the coaction and interaction of conspecifics, the neural mechanisms underlying these functions, and the commonality and differences across social species in these structures, processes, and functions. If cognitive neuroscience views the brain and nervous system as a solitary computer, social neuroscience views these structures (p. 1028) as wide-band connected, mobile information processing devices in a highly interconnected network.

As clearly illustrated in the Handbook, social neuroscience spans diverse species, disciplines, methods, and topics. Social species create organizations beyond the individual. These superorganismal structures evolved hand in hand with psychological, neural, hormonal, cellular, and genetic mechanisms to support them because the consequent social behaviors helped these organisms survive, reproduce, and care for offspring sufficiently long that they too reproduced. Social neuroscience seeks to specify the neural, hormonal, cellular, and genetic mechanisms underlying social behavior, and in so doing to understand the associations and influences between social and biological levels of organization. Social neuroscience, therefore, is a complex interdisciplinary perspective that demands theoretical, methodological, statistical, and inferential rigor to effectively integrate basic, clinical, and applied perspectives on the nervous system and brain.

Social neuroscience is not a hegemony so much as a confederation of scientists, clinicians, and practitioners who have shared a perspective, interests, and foundational questions but who have differed in species, technical and analytical methods, levels of analysis, and disciplinary training. The contributors to this Handbook illustrate the potential synergies that exist by bringing these scholarly efforts into contact. This is very important because many of the social behaviors exhibited by simple animals (such as mating, aggression, foraging, learning, and memory) are reminiscent of social behaviors in more complex animals including humans. These similarities do not mean that the underlying mechanisms are identical, but both similarities and differences in these mechanisms can contribute significantly to theory and research in social neuroscience. The same is true for the differences in the social behavior of human and nonhuman animals.

Social neuroscientists generally, but especially those who are thinking about or who have only recently entered the field may find these potential synergies to be particularly productive to pursue. The social environment affects biology and behavior, and biology and behavior affect the social environment. Recognizing these reciprocal relationships are at the heart/core of social neuroscience, and calls for increase exchanges across disciplines. Success in the field is not measured in terms of the contributions to any single parent discipline, but rather in terms of the specification of the biological mechanisms underlying social interactions and behavior—one of the major problems for the neurosciences to address in the 21st century. As these mechanisms are specified, there may well be ramifications for the parent disciplines that lead to advances there, as well.

Within its brief history, social neuroscience has received considerable attention, both within the academic world and in the media. Typically, this attention has shed a positive light on the advances, opportunities and challenges in the field, but occasionally the focus is on the obstacles, errors, or problems in the field. Although some of this is inevitable, our motivation for doing this Handbook is to take stock of where we are as a collective field, highlight best practices and discuss standards that are needed for the field, identify some of the major questions and challenges that lie ahead, and provide materials for use in science education of young students and the public as well as for the training of the next generation of social neuroscientists.

What might some of these interesting questions be? Each contributor to this Handbook, and each person in the field, has their own answer to this question, and we do not mean to speak for them. We nevertheless leave students in the field, or those who are thinking about entering the field, with a few to ponder. Does social behavior differ from individual behavior at the mechanistic level? Are there neural organizations and functions that are common across all species? What differences in neural, hormonal, or genetic organization account for cross-species differences? What might analyses of social species across evolutionary timescales contribute to our understanding of the structure and function of the brain and nervous system of social species within their lifetime today? Why are elements of social behavior conserved across species? Do social behaviors have distinct signatures in the brain or the genome? How has culture shaped the brains and genes of human and nonhuman species? What are the reciprocal influences in the evolution of genes and human culture, and are similar influences found in nonhuman animals for which something like culture has been identified? Are social neural processes distinct than nonsocial processes—and in cases in which the answer is no, has one (e.g., the nonsocial process of intra-categorical discrimination? been derived from the other (e.g., the social process of facial perception and recognition)? The medial prefrontal cortex is systematically associated with social understanding in humans, but what computations are subserved, and how are those computations interfaced with those produced (p. 1029) in other regions that are part of a functional neural circuit? If the dissection of two social processes reveals the same neural region to be operating in two different neural circuits, do the sum of the parts differ because the computations performed by the elements differ, the individual computations of the elements in these circuits simply sum to a different total, or the computations of the elements include properties that make the total more than the sum of the parts? What are the neural structures and processes that make it possible for us to know that when readers peruse the preceding sentence, they may think they understand what we intended to convey but that they may not understand what we actually meant to convey until they understand some of the material covered in the Handbook, while also appreciating that what some readers think we meant to say could be more interesting and fruitful than what we actually meant to convey? As you can perhaps tell, we believe that the questions in social neuroscience are complex but are also among the most interesting scientific questions to address this century.

In sum, traditional neuroscience has for many years considered the nervous system as an isolated entity and largely ignored influences of the social environments in which humans and many animal species live. We now increasingly recognize the considerable impact on brain and body function of social structures that range from dyads, families, neighborhoods and groups to cities, civilizations, and international alliances. These factors operate on the individual through a continuous interplay of neural, neuroendocrine, metabolic and immune factors on brain and body, in which the brain is the central regulatory organ and also a malleable target of these factors. Thus, social neuroscience investigates the nervous system and its manifestations at many interacting levels—from molecules to societies—and brings together multiple disciplines and methodologies to define the emergent structures that define social species, generally, and which underlie human health and behavior, in particular. It is essential to unravel this complexity as we contemplate the future welfare of life on earth. (p. 1030)