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Real-World Social Cognition: Context Effects in Face and Threat Processing


Harrison, Laura Anne (2015) Real-World Social Cognition: Context Effects in Face and Threat Processing. Dissertation (Ph.D.), California Institute of Technology. doi:10.7907/Z95H7D7P.


As borne out by everyday social experience, social cognition is highly dependent on context, modulated by a host of factors that arise from the social environment in which we live. While streamlined laboratory research provides excellent experimental control, it can be limited to telling us about the capabilities of the brain under artificial conditions, rather than elucidating the processes that come into play in the real world. Consideration of the impact of ecologically valid contextual cues on social cognition will improve the generalizability of social neuroscience findings also to pathology, e.g., to psychiatric illnesses. To help bridge between laboratory research and social cognition as we experience it in the real world, this thesis investigates three themes: (1) increasing the naturalness of stimuli with richer contextual cues, (2) the potentially special contextual case of social cognition when two people interact directly, and (3) a third theme of experimental believability, which runs in parallel to the first two themes. Focusing on the first two themes, in work with two patient populations, we explore neural contributions to two topics in social cognition. First, we document a basic approach bias in rare patients with bilateral lesions of the amygdala. This finding is then related to the contextual factor of ambiguity, and further investigated together with other contextual cues in a sample of healthy individuals tested over the internet, finally yielding a hierarchical decision tree for social threat evaluation. Second, we demonstrate that neural processing of eye gaze in brain structures related to face, gaze, and social processing is differently modulated by the direct presence of another live person. This question is investigated using fMRI in people with autism and controls. Across a range of topics, we demonstrate that two themes of ecological validity — integration of naturalistic contextual cues, and social interaction — influence social cognition, that particular brain structures mediate this processing, and that it will be crucial to study interaction in order to understand disorders of social interaction such as autism.

Item Type:Thesis (Dissertation (Ph.D.))
Subject Keywords:Social neuroscience; ecological validity; interaction; context effects; face processing; threat; amygdala; autism
Degree Grantor:California Institute of Technology
Division:Engineering and Applied Science
Major Option:Computation and Neural Systems
Thesis Availability:Public (worldwide access)
Research Advisor(s):
  • Adolphs, Ralph
Thesis Committee:
  • O'Doherty, John P. (chair)
  • Adolphs, Ralph
  • Perona, Pietro
  • Tsao, Doris Y.
  • Shimojo, Shinsuke
Defense Date:27 May 2015
Record Number:CaltechTHESIS:05292015-165113710
Persistent URL:
Harrison, Laura Anne0000-0001-5383-7769
Default Usage Policy:No commercial reproduction, distribution, display or performance rights in this work are provided.
ID Code:8934
Deposited By: Laura Harrison
Deposited On:02 Jun 2015 15:28
Last Modified:04 Oct 2019 00:08

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