Social interaction in humans is complex, compared with the social relationships between other animal species. The way in which we relate socially involves many disparate neural functions including: representations of internal somatic states; knowledge about the self; social perceptions and interpersonal motivations. All are orchestrated to support normal, skilled social adaptation.
Underpinning social responsiveness is a set of skills termed “social cognition”. Social cognition involves the coordinated action of a network of specific brain regions including the amygdala, frontal cortex and aspects of the temporal cortex. Successful social interactions require us to observe other people's behaviour, to predict the behaviour of others in relation to ourselves and to respond appropriately. As children, we become increasingly aware of our own actions and their impact on the physical and social world.
Social understanding, language and imitation can also be learned through a “mirror” neural system that responds both during our own actions and when we see others behaving in the same way, with appropriate control systems that enable us to distinguish our own from other people's actions.
There is emerging evidence for the role played by a range of genetic and hormonal influences upon the coordinated functioning of these regions. They include the neuropeptides oxytocin and vasopressin and their receptors, which interact with other genetically influenced pathways including systems involved in goal-directed behaviours and the sense of (social) reward. Normal variation, or structural changes, in genes that maintain the functional integrity of the “social brain” could predispose to disorders.
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