C. Rose Brain Series #4: The Social Brain

Charlie Rose Brain SeriesThe fourth episode in the Charlie Rose Brain Series aired January 19, 2010. Watch the episode online, with full transcript: http://www.charlierose.com/watch/50028268

Featuring Charlie Rose with Nobel Laureate Eric Kandel. Panelists include:

  • Cornelia Bargmann studies the genetic control of social behavior in simple animals such as worms and flies. She is also a professor at Rockefeller University.
  • Kevin Pelphrey’s work uses brain imaging techniques to understand social perception and cognition. He is an associate professor of child psychiatry at Yale University.
  • Giacomo Rizzolatti, in 1996, discovered a special group of cells known as mirror neurons. They are thought to play many crucial roles in social interaction. He’s a professor at the University of Parma, Italy.
  • Gerald Fischbach’s research is devoted to understanding autism, a disease that robs victims of their social skills. He is a professor at Columbia University and the director of autism research at the Simons Foundation.

Excerpts from the transcript follow this 17-minute clip of highlights:

ERIC KANDEL: As you pointed out very nicely in your introduction, we are immensely social beings. We use our social behavior to find a partner, to build a family, to build a community, to build a culture. And also, as you indicate, aspects of that can go into disarray and lead to aggression. Social behavior is so important that it is conserved in evolution, and you find it not only in people, but you find it in simple animals, such of which, like ants build complex societies.

Although much of social behavior is learned, important aspects of it are determined by genes. For example, you can show in flies and in worms and in simple mouse-like animals that single genes control bonding, whether animals will hang together, whether they go their own way. So genes can have important influences in behavior.
Moreover, as you indicated with the social brain, social functions are localized in the brain just as sensory functions and motor functions are. In fact, we see in the social brain that there are sensory areas and the motor areas. In sensory areas, the visual system is very important. Faces, as you pointed out, are extremely important, reading other people’s emotions. So there are face areas in the brain that respond not only to faces but to emotional expression of faces.

Moreover, as you pointed out, parts of the motor systems are committed to social behavior. Rizzolatti made this wonderful discovery that there are areas of the motor system that respond when the monkey picks up a glass of water. That’s not surprising. The motor system is designed to pick up a glass of water. But the amazing thing is the same cells in a monkey respond when you, Charlie Rose, pick up a glass of water. So they are mirroring your behavior, so empathic identification with another person is mediated through the motor system. So we have learned all of this by looking at the emotional brain.

CORNELIA BARGMANN, ROCKEFELLER UNIVERSITY: Most animals, most living things spend at least part of their life in association with others of their own kind. And we know that even in the way we talk about schools of fish or flocks of geese or hives of bees that groups of animals are often units that are traveling through time and are behaving together. So they have to recognize each other, they have to communicate with each other, and they have to generate coherent behavior. So what E.O. Wilson noticed, a naturalist about the middle of the last century, is that many of the social behaviors that animals have are recognizably similar to each other, related to each other even in animals that are very different and very widely separated by evolution. And when you make an observation like that in biology, very often what it means is that there’s an underlying genetics that are very ancient that is contributing to the same output in lots of different animals. And that idea of taking different genes, that sort of flowing them through the different animals and using them for social behavior in a variety of animals, is the idea that builds on the idea that there’s a genetics of social behavior.

BARGMANN: So if we could have a movie, I’m going to show you the organism that my lab works on, which is a very simple worm. And this worm is tiny and it lives in the soil, and it eats bacteria. But it has a number of interesting behaviors, and among those, as shown in this movie, are that it’s a friendly worm. And so if we look at a group of worms together, here we see that the two little white worms are associating with about ten other little black worms, and they’re gathered together in two little clusters of animals. And most of the worms want to spend most of the time with other worms, although sometimes they will wander off and come back and join the group. And this is not about food, there’s food everywhere, and it’s not about mating, this is a family show. It’s about the animals preferring to associate with each other.

GIACOMO RIZZOLATTI, UNIVERSITY OF PARMA: Well, I think one mechanism which we discovered a few years ago is very important in showing how monkeys interact one to another. And especially this discovery of mirror neurons show there’s a specific way in which the animals, and humans as well, we’ll talk later about humans, have knowledge of the other. So in other words, there are these neurons which fire both, one you observe something or one you do the same thing. So what is strange in this neuron because the type of knowledge you get from them, it’s completely different from that that you can get about obstructing. So what you are doing inside my brain and become my behavior. So it’s a specific type of link which cannot be substituted by any type of cognitive or inferential thing. So you do something, enter inside my brain as a motor system, and that’s my experience. So somehow, we share the experience. That’s the novelty of the mirror neurons. So it’s not only a way to understand, because there are many other ways in which we can understand behavior patterns. But this one has this unique stuff that somehow we share experiences.

KANDEL: Giacomo’s discovery of mirror neurons is one of the major discoveries of the last 20 years in neuron science because it taught us several different lessons. One is, as he indicated, the appreciation that one has in one’s brain, the capability of understanding another person’s action, that when somebody does something, your own nervous systems goes off as if you’re carrying out the action yourself although your hand doesn’t move. That’s number one. Number two, we used to think that the sensory systems and the motor systems are completely separate. This processing of sensory information, your movement is occurring in his motor system. So a fraction of the cells that are involved in picking up this pencil will respond when you pick up your pencil. It’s in the motor system that he discovered this remarkable thing. So he made us realize that the motor systems have sensory cognitive capabilities. It’s an extraordinary advance.

ROSE: As we listen every episode to this, I’m hearing certain common themes. One is localization, the cutting engine of where brain research is going is understanding where localizations are. The other two is, sort of as we’re discussing here, both genetic and environmental and where those things come.

And the third thing that I find is how complex all of this is, so that if you really want to go really understand it, you have to go to begin with genes where you can isolate and these are commonalities — every conversation we have…

KANDEL: This is why it’s so important to have different experimental models. The worm that Cory works on is fantastic in terms of understanding how genes control the logic of neuro-circuitry. Monkeys are terrific because they’re the closest things to humans. They are non-human primates. So you can study complex things like mirror neurons, which he discovered there. So this is the advantage of having these different experimental animals. Each one can give you a different insight into important biological problems. But there’s one other point that I think is important to emphasize. These are very difficult problems, and we’re at the beginning of understanding any one of them. So it’s really in the last decade or two that the social brain is really emerged in terms of discrete subcomponents.

GERALD FISCHBACH: Yes. And so Charlie, I think this also a theme throughout every session of the program, that basic science has taught us a lot about human disorders or predicaments. But conversely, it’s the human predicament that has taught us enormously about the basic science of the brain. We talked about this in the very, very first show, and nowhere is that illustrated more profoundly than in autism and related developmental disorders. Autism runs the spectrum between normal behavior and the other end of the spectrum, really compromised, severely compromised individuals.

KEVIN PELPHREY: One of the points I want to highlight is that a lot of the mechanisms that we’re talking about for social perception can be used for good or ill. So I can try to understand other people’s intentions because I want to help them, and we hope that most of the time that’s what’s going on. But these very same mechanisms are extremely powerful if I want to compete with them. … and that’s really a developmental perspective on all this. So the reason why autism is such a profoundly difficult thing to understand is development. We’re talking about a neuro-developmental disorder, and things are changing constantly, and you take all of that into account. And the question I want to address in that medium to short term is I think we’re in a position where we have an understanding from genetics, both clinical genetics and work in other organisms and non-human primates, and we can take that information into human neuro-imaging, and we can begin to understand the very early development in the social brain and why different social brains development differently.

ROSE: But the theory of mind means what?

KANDEL: The theory of mind refers to a fact when you and I have a conversation I have a general idea of where you’re going, what you hope to get at, that you have your only way of thinking about a problem. Autistic kids can’t get into your brain. They don’t understand that you have your own agenda, which is different than their agenda.

FISCHBACH: This is very profound. It’s a matter of belief. When the children develop an idea about false beliefs, that other people may believe things that are different than what they believe. It’s different than a shared emotion. A young child will smile when you smile or they’ll frown when you frown. But to appreciate that the person you’re looking at may be thinking about something that’s different than what you’re thinking about is a very late developing and very profound skill.

PELPHREY: And a key concept that we can relate back to aggression is understanding that another person’s belief may be different from yours and different from what you know to be reality is your belief of what reality is. When those two things disagree, that’s an opportunity for conflict.

BARGMANN: The point to take away is that our brains are not calculators where you punch in a bunch of numbers and you get a number out in the end. Our brains are ourselves, and they incorporate what’s important and how we feel, and they give you different kinds of responses. And one of the most important things for us is each other. From the moment of our birth, the most important aspect of our life is our ability to predict and affect the behavior of others. And so this is a big part of what it is to be human. And I would say that the question I would like to understand is how a biological system can do something so remarkable.

KANDEL: I think there are two themes that struck me that have come out of this discussion. One is how important it is for biology for our understanding of using a number of different experimental approaches, including different organisms varying in complexity from worms to non-human primates to people. I think this is essential, this comparative approach that is critical to understanding behavior, number one. And number two, given the fact that we are born to do good, as Giacomo would have us believe, but we’re capable of evil — to understand better how one flips from one to the other, and to see a way where we can prevent this tribalism from becoming a dominant force. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we had some biological insight into how to contain that?