The overarching goal of the DSCN lab is to understand how we flexibly navigate and learn from social interactions and why individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) find this feat so challenging. We take a developmental cognitive neuroscience approach to examine the development of typical and atypical social interaction. We argue that the dominant approaches to understand social development are limited because they fail to take into account two critical aspects of real-world social interaction: 1) real-world social processing involves social interaction, and 2) real-world social processing is complex and dynamic. To overcome these limitations, we use novel paradigms and approaches to understand how the brain and mind support children’s developing ability to interact with others.
Importance of social-interactive context
The study of social processing is traditionally approached from the perspective of a detached observer. That is, people view an image (or hear a description) of a person whom they have not met and for whom there is no opportunity for direct interaction. This “observer” perspective differs from how we typically encounter people in the real world, where their actions are directed towards us in a reciprocal exchange (i.e., we take a social-interactive perspective). Our research has shown that engaging in a direct interaction with another person changes neural processing compared to seeing or hearing the same stimuli from an observer perspective. In current work we are examining how social interaction modulates brain networks in typically developing children and children with autism. We are focusing on two key systems for social interaction: social-cognitive (i.e., attributing mental states to others, also known as “theory of mind” or “mentalizing”) and motivational (i.e., motivation to engage with others and enjoyment in social interactions) systems.
A social-interactive approach is particularly important in understanding joint attention. Joint attention occurs when two people intentionally coordinate their attention to an object in order to share information, interest, or enjoyment about the object. This core social-interactive ability is important for social and cognitive development and is atypical in children with autism. Our research on joint attention asks 1) how does joint attention affect information processing (including memory, emotion, and attention), 2) what are the brain networks supporting joint attention and how do these change with age? 3) how does joint attention differ in people with ASD?
In order to establish joint attention, people must detect cues to communicate - such as direct gaze or communicative gestures. We examine how the brain processes these communicative cues, including when they are first detected and which brain regions respond to both verbal and nonverbal cues (e.g., “hi” and a wave gesture). Through collaborations with Dr. Audrey Thurm and colleagues at the NIH, we are also examining the neurodevelopmental correlates of social-communicative cues in typically developing toddlers and toddlers at risk for autism due to language delay.
Theory of Mind Development
Effective social communication requires the ability to infer what someone is thinking and use that information to predict her behavior (known as “theory of mind”). While this ability may be present in infancy, significant developments are seen throughout childhood. Our research on theory of mind focuses on two questions. First, how do changes in brain structures and networks underlie developments in thinking about other people's minds in early childhood? This work is conducted through collaboration with Dr. Tracy Riggins at UMD using a longitudinal design to examine developmental change. Second, what is the cognitive structure of theory of mind and how is it developmentally related to other core social process, including action perception and social motivation? We have shown that different aspects of theory of mind (e.g., reading emotions from the face or reasoning about character’s actions) rely on different brain networks and dissociate in middle childhood.
Multimodal and dynamic approaches to social processing
Reciprocal social interaction can be broken down into phases of interaction within a single turn-taking exchange, across a conversation, and over years of shared experiences. We are using novel paradigms and analytic methods to capture the temporal dynamics of social processing within rich multimodal contexts (in collaboration with Dr. Luiz Pessoa at UMD). Understanding these temporal dynamics embedded within complex, ecologically valid contexts may be especially important in understanding disorders affecting social interaction, such as ASD and social anxiety.
Portions of this research are funded by the National Institute of Mental Health, the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, the Autism Science Foundation, the National Science Foundation, and the Department of Defense.