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Social Neuroscience. People thinking about thinking people (SN, henceforth) was comprehensively described in a previous review by G. C. Gupta [in METAPSYCHOLOGY, Volume: 10, Number: 33]. Together with Essays in Social Neuroscience (Cacioppo & Berntson (2004)), SN represents an effort to consolidate an emerging field within the realm of neuroscience, i.e. Social Neuroscience. The present review is aimed at offering a complement to Gupta's descriptive review by motivating some interesting connections between some general issues explored in SN and two related fields of study, Agnotology and Memetics. To sketch such connections, on the one hand, might allow us to find new motivating questions enriching the increasing bunch of concerns filling the agenda of social neuroscientists. On the other hand, it would help to sketch a plausible plan of how Social Neuroscience could enrich Memetics and Agnotology.
The explananda of Social Neuroscience is "[...] all the ways in which human beings influence and are influenced by the presence, actual or imagined, of other humans" (SN, p. viii), so described, social neuroscience deals with a universe of inter-subjective relationships drawn in infinite different directions. More particularly, Social Neuroscience deals with the "[...] neurobiological underpinnings of social information processing" (SN, p. xii).
In general, social sciences deal with the part of the reality in which complex inter-subjective relationships take place. In particular, Social Neuroscience accounts for the neurobiological grounding of such complex relationships. In this route, Social Neuroscience must face the challenge of developing methodological strategies in order to acquire empirical evidence of the mentioned neurobiological grounding. In the final chapter of SN, Raichle claims that "[... t]he challenges will be to understand how best to integrate the potential of tools such as brain imaging with the fascinating yet complex issue of interest to social scientists" (pp. 293- 294). For instance, chapters 11 by Ambady and colleagues couples the spatial resolution of fMRI (functional, magnetic resonance imaging) with the temporal resolution of ERPs (event-related brain potentials).
The methodological challenge hasn't been faced only within the technological dimension, but also within the explanatory domain. As Lieberman and Eisenberger claim in the chapter 9, "[...] several chapters in [SN] explore whether a particular dimension of social cognition can be reduced to more general cognitive processes by examining whether social and cognitive processes share overlapping neural basis" (p. 168).
The claim concerning methodological contributions of Social Neuroscience should be attached to a caveat introduced by Bernston in the chapter 1: "[... b]rain localizations can inform neuropsychological theories, but meaningful neurosocial theories will not be theories about places, nor will their critical elements and conceptual relations be couched in the language of space" (p. 9). Therefore, enriching the field of study of Social Neuroscience shouldn't be reduced to the search of "neural correlates" or "neural substrates" of the psychological phenomena related to social cognition. Otherwise, Social Neuroscience and its derived neurosocial theories should be conceived to raise its own questions, models, and connections, working hand in hand with other emerging fields of study of social phenomena. However, such a caveat doesn't entail that Social Neuroscience mustn't contribute with the search of "neural substrates", as it is done in chapters 2, 3, and 4, by Bechara and Bar-On, Gusnard, and Mitchell and colleagues, respectively.
Social Neuroscience as well as Agnotology and Memetics have been the outcome of the conjoined efforts of recent disciplinary "splitters". The early splitter who promoted the consolidation of Agnotology was Robert Proctor between 2003 and 2005. Agnotology is the study of ignorance making (see Proctor & Schiebinger (2008)). Agnotology deals with a universe of phenomena derived from different ways people think about thinking people, e.g. secrecy, apathy, censorship, disinformation, faith, forgetfulness, and so on and so forth. In this vein, we don't need sophisticated arguments to accept that the explananda of Social Neuroscience and Agnotology overlap.
The case of Memetics is different. It wasn't born as a field of study or the candidate to be a new emerging discipline. Otherwise, it was born, during the 70s, as the theory that cultural evolution takes place because there are units (called by Dawkins memes) culturally selected. Some examples of types of memes are recipes and clothes fashions. In general, the Memetics' seed was the idea that to describe the mechanisms of memetic replication allows us to explain cultural evolution. Some years later, the study of the units of cultural replication who share features with genes, i.e. the study of memes, was more or less accepted as a new branch of science –of a Darwinian science of culture. Some early splitters were Daniel Dennett and Susan Blackmore, among others (see Aunger (2000)).
The replication (variation and selection) of memes involves extra-cranial ways of relations between persons, e.g. symbolic communication. As Blackmore would say, memes jump among brains. Such jumps are the dynamic pillars of cultural evolution: they are conditions for language and thought. However, from a neurobiological point of view, such extra-cranial relations are the outcome of interconnected brains. In this way, Social Neuroscience and Memetics are both concerned with the study of social information processing. Again, we don't need sophisticated arguments to accept that the explananda of Social Neuroscience and Memetics are connected.
Social Neuroscience, Agnotology, and Memetics have in common the study of social processes from different approaches, methodological commitments, and conceptual backgrounds. However, to accept that the corresponding explananda of new branches of science are connected is not enough to motivate their union. This is obvious. Despite their differences, the questions motivating Agnotology, as well as, the explanatory power of Memetics could help to raise new questions to be faced by social neuroscientists.
What are the neurobiological events eliciting that some memes succeed and others fail to jump among brains? I think of this question as inhabiting at the intersection of Social Neuroscience and Memetics. To answer this question could undermine the accusations done by Mary Midgley and others that the notion of 'memes' just captures a sort of "mythical entities". Chapter 10, by Tiffany Ito and colleagues, deals with stereotyping and prejudice. Many researchers have explored the grounds of Memetics in order to explain the same social phenomena. And some of them have conjectured that these phenomena derived from a sort of cognitive infection, i.e. that they derive from the fact that some brains have been simultaneously infected (by some memes) and that such an infection, without any conscious cognitive control, elicits an automatic behavior revealing the presence of what we call stereotypes and prejudices (vid.: Lynch (1996)). Ito et al. explore the racial social stereotype according to which black people is associated with violence and aggression. One of the main conclusions of this chapter is that the process of categorization involved in perception of persons (i.e., social perception) is automatic: "[... p]erceivers orient to [racial and gender cues] early in perception and process it in a relatively obligatory manner across a range of processing goals known to attenuate later activation of stereotypes" (SN, p. 203). If we accept that the idea that black people is linked to violence and aggression is a meme, then we could accept that the experiments conducted by Ito et al. and their derived conclusions draws an sketch of a neurobiological model of processing for some memetic infections. This would help to understand the symbiosis between cultural instructions (i.e. memes), as stereotypes, and the way our neurobiological systems host them.
How could be developed a neurocomputational model explaining neurosocial phenomena as faith and deception? I think of this challenge as inhabiting at the intersection of Social Neuroscience and Agnotology. Tackling these and other very interesting related question will continue enriching the growing domain of neurosocial theories, offering us a neuroscientific image of several social phenomena, as, e.g., the roots of Pop Culture.
Many other questions can be raised at the intersection of Memetics, Agnotology, and Social Neuroscience. SN represents a very prosperous and motivating link on the overwhelming field of Social Neuroscience. For sure, the current scientific community will continue delighted with volumes similar in character and content. The machine of Social Neuroscience has been turned on; its potential relations to other emerging fields will elicit innovative syntheses and new challenging questions in the effort to arrive to a scientific understanding of social phenomena.
Aunger, R. (ed.) (2000), Darwinizing culture. The status of memetics as a science, Oxford University Press.
Cacioppo, J.T. & Berntson, G. (eds.) (2004), Essays in social neuroscience, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Lynch, A. (1996), Thought contagion: How belief spreads through society. The new sconce of memes. New York: Basic Books.
Proctor, R. & Schiebinger, L. (eds.) (2008), Agnotology. The Making and Unmaking of Ignorance, Stanford University Press., Stanford, California.
© 2012 Carlos M. Muñoz-Suárez
Carlos M. Muñoz-Suárez, Researcher, PERSP Project, Universität de Barcelona, Department of Philosophy