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). Default network connectivity during rest consolidates social information. Cerebral Cortex, doi: 10.1093/cercor/bhy071. PDF.
Meyer, M. L., & Lieberman, M. D. Why people are always thinking about themselves: Medial prefrontal cortex primes self-referential processing. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, /doi.org/10.1162/jocn_a_01232. PDF.
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. PDF.