Two-thirds of human socializing centers on exchanging information about people: their behaviors, thoughts, and traits. Yet, how we track the social information swarming our everyday lives remains largely unknown. Our research integrates social and cognitive neuroscience to understand what drives our tendency, ability, and need to think about the social world around us. We aim to answer questions such as: How do we juggle multiple social cognitive demands on the fly? How do we learn and consolidate information about the people and groups with whom we interact? Why do the negative and positive experiences with people from our past seem to linger with us, either by haunting us with pain or consuming us with nostalgia?
Are we Social by default?
The overwhelming majority of neuroscience research on social cognition measures neural activity during a task. This makes a lot of sense--it is good to know that the neural activation you observe is tied to a psychological state that, as an experimenter, you have induced. This paradigm, however, has overshadowed a very interesting phenomenon that may reveal a great deal about social cognition. That is, the medial frontoparietal system that activates during social cognition tasks is also consistently active when we are not performing any experimental task at all. This phenomenon is so robust that it even led neuroscientists to name this network the 'default network' since it is consistently active by default, in the absence of other instructions. Why would the same neurocognitive system that activates during experimentally induced social cognition also robustly engage by default? This question has been one of the greatest mysteries in social neuroscience to date. In this line of research, we examine the social psychological functions of activating the medial frontoparietal network by default. So far, we have discovered that default network activity during rest before a social encounter primes us to think socially during the encounter whereas default network activity after a social encounter consolidates newly acquired social information.
Meyer, M. L., Davachi, L., Ochsner, K. N., & Lieberman, M. D. (2018). Evidence that default network connectivity during rest consolidates social information. Cerebral Cortex.
Meyer, M. L. & Lieberman, M. D. (2018). Why people are always thinking about themselves: Medial prefrontal cortex activity at rest primes self-referential processing. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience.
Spunt, R. P., Meyer, M. L., & Lieberman, M. D. (2015). The default mode of human brain function primes the intentional stance, Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 27(6), 1116-1124.
How do we navigate challenging social situations?
Everyday social cognition involves a great deal of information juggling. Just as an example, consider a social gathering where multiple people, with different backgrounds and relationships with one another, all converse. To smoothly navigate this social scenario, you will need to keep track of who said what, as well as why he or she said it. As the complexity and number of people in the situation increases, so will your need to manage social information in mind. How do we pull off such complex social information processing on the fly? In this line of research, we examine the brain mechanisms that support the moment-to-moment maintenance and manipulation of social cognitive information, or 'social working memory.' Our findings so far suggest that social cognitive forms of working memory may preferentially recruit a medial frontoparietal network (or 'default network') that otherwise interferes with non-social forms of working memory.
Meyer, M. L., Spunt, R. P., Berkman, E. T., Taylor, S. E., & Lieberman, M. D. (2012). Evidence for social working memory from a parametric functional MRI study. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 109, 1883-1888.
Meyer, M. L. & Lieberman, M. D. (2012). Social working memory: Neurocognitive networks and directions for future research. Frontiers in Psychology, 3, 1-11.
Meyer, M. L., Taylor, S. E., & Lieberman, M.D. (2015). Social working memory and its distinctive link to social cognitive ability: An fMRI study. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience.
Why are social experiences 'Sticky'?
Why does pain feel worse when it is caused intentionally as opposed to accidentally? Why is it more upsetting to think about a former betrayal than a past physical injury? Why do we preferentially experience nostalgia for our past social (relative to non-social) rewards? In this line of research, we examine why affective experiences generated by thinking about people--albeit intentions, social relationships, or self-concepts--are sustained and amplified relative to affect induced by non-social causes.
Meyer, M. L., Williams, K. D., & Eisenberger, N. I. (2015). Why social pain can live on: Different neural mechanisms are associated with reliving social and physical pain. PLOS One, 10(6), e0128294.