For the first time, an fMRI study has examined brain activity that occurs during face-to-face interaction, identifying a new and effective method for social cognitive neuroscience.
Now this might seem like a strange idea: social cognitive neuroscience is such a popular area of research, yet no neuroimaging studies until now have investigated the most fundamental aspect of social cognition, face-to-face interaction? Unfortunately this has been the case. Functional MRI studies on social interaction are limited in that the subject has to lie in a large magnetic tomb, isolated from the rest of civilization. They may watch videos or play video games that supposedly involve interaction with other people, but how accurately these situations reflect real-life social relations is up for debate.
In the new study published in NeuroImage, Elizabeth Redcay and colleagues at MIT circumvented the previous shortcomings by having subjects lie in the magnet while showing them a live video feed of a person who they played interactive games with. The researchers reported activation in brain regions involved in social interaction, such as the right temporoparietal junction and right posterior superior temporal sulcus (not the catchiest of names, but perhaps they'll soon be re-named the “sharing” and “friend-making” areas). These regions were not found in previous “social cognition” fMRI studies.
The authors suggest that their method, which is essentially an fMRI video-conference with social games instead of talking, can be applied to study social cognition deficits in autism. This would certainly be an interesting application, and the method could be used to explore a range of other untapped questions. However, there is still an important potential shortcoming in this new method: how can we assume that a face-to-face video-conference affects our brain in the same way that a real-life face-to-face interaction does?
It is indeed possible that despite a video-conference’s attempt to mimic reality, significant differences between the two remain. Sarah-Jayne Blakemore asked related questions in a recent paper in Neuron, discussing the importance of social interactions in brain development and implications for the use of communicative technology in education. Blakemore calls for more research on technology use in education, asking “[w]hat is the critical factor in social interaction that is so evidently missing from video conferencing, and which makes it incomparable to a meeting with real people?”
Additionally, Blakemore cites studies that reported important differences between using videos and other technology versus real-life interaction. As you may have guessed, real-life education always tends to come out on top in terms of effectiveness. This should put tools such as educational videos under scrutiny.
People are so amazed by video-conferencing, obsessing over the fact that it is so similar to real life. Undeniably, video-conferences are the closest we have come to real life, and it is fascinating that in Canada, you can speak with someone in Australia as if they are “right there” in your office. But some things are missing. Tactile greetings are absent. The communicators share separate atmospheres, perhaps desynchronizing their neural rhythms. And looking into someone’s eyes on a computer screen is not quite the same as a real-life mutual stare.
The study of video-conferencing is a stride toward understanding real-life social engagement, but we need to still dig deeper, questioning our tendency to substitute the real with the virtual. Can we fast-forward the processes of thousands of years of evolution, during which our brains developed through direct social interaction, or should we take a moment to rewind?
Redcay E, Dodell-Feder D, Pearrow MJ, Mavros PL, Kleiner M, Gabrieli JD, & Saxe R (2010). Live face-to-face interaction during fMRI: a new tool for social cognitive neuroscience. NeuroImage, 50 (4), 1639-47 PMID: 20096792
Blakemore SJ (2010). The developing social brain: implications for education. Neuron, 65 (6), 744-7 PMID: 20346751