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{Excerpt} Human history is not only social history but also neurobiological history. Throughout most of the 20th century, social and biological explanations were widely viewed as incompatible. However, from the 1990s, the emergence of social neuroscience vindicates Aristotle’s pioneering deductions. The young science accepts that the brain is a single, pivotal component of an undeniably social species and that it is orderly in its complexity. It treats the human brain as a social organ, whose physiological and neurological reactions are directly and profoundly shaped by social interaction. (To a mammal, being socially connected to caregivers is indispensablefor survival: this, incidentally, suggests that Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs might need to be revised to ascribe more weight to social needs, e.g., love and belonging, and esteem, in relation to self-actualization.)

Nondualistic and nonreductionistic, social neuroscience, through a multilevel and integrative approach, aims to understand the role of the central nervous system in the formation and maintenance of social behaviors and processes. Spanning the social and biological domains, e.g., molecular, cellular, system, person, relational, collective, and societal, it exploits biological concepts and neurobiological techniques such as functional magnetic resonance imaging—which measures patterns of blood oxygenation responses in the brain as a subject engages in a particular task, to inform and refine theories of social behavior. In short, it focuses on how the brain mediates social interaction. (Brain scans captured through functional magnetic resonance imaging show that the same areas are associated with distress, be that caused by social rejection or by physical pain.)

Arguably, the potential benefits of social neuroscience are that it can inform debates in social psychology, provide tools for measuring brain–body activity directly and unobtrusively and provide information that would be impossible to assess using other techniques, and permit the examination of social processes by pointing to the importance of social variables (from context to culture) in altering processes within the brain and body.


Suggested Citation

Serrat, O. (2010). A primer on social neuroscience. Washington, DC: Asian Development Bank.

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This article was first published by the Asian Development Bank (