Letter

Spontaneous neural encoding of social network position

  • Nature Human Behaviour 1, Article number: 0072 (2017)
  • doi:10.1038/s41562-017-0072
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Abstract

Unlike many species that enact social behaviour in loose aggregations (such as swarms or herds), humans form groups comprising many long-term, intense, non-reproductive bonds with non-kin1. The cognitive demands of navigating such groups are thought to have significantly influenced human brain evolution2. Yet little is known about how and to what extent the human brain encodes the structure of the social networks in which it is embedded. We characterized the social network of an academic cohort (N = 275); a subset (N = 21) completed a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) study involving viewing individuals who varied in terms of ‘degrees of separation’ from themselves (social distance), the extent to which they were well-connected to well-connected others (eigenvector centrality) and the extent to which they connected otherwise unconnected individuals (brokerage). Understanding these characteristics of social network position requires tracking direct relationships, bonds between third parties and the broader network topology. Pairing network data with multi-voxel pattern analysis, we show that information about social network position is accurately perceived and spontaneously activated when encountering familiar individuals. These findings elucidate how the human brain encodes the structure of its social world and underscore the importance of integrating an understanding of social networks into the study of social perception.

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Acknowledgements

This work was supported by a graduate fellowship from the Neukom Institute for Computational Science and a Dartmouth Graduate Alumni Research Award to C.P. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish or preparation of the manuscript. The authors thank W. Haslett for assistance with the optical flow analysis.

Author information

Affiliations

  1. Department of Psychology, University of California, Los Angeles, 1285 Franz Hall, Box 951563, Los Angeles, California 90095, USA

    • Carolyn Parkinson
  2. Tuck School of Business, Dartmouth College, 100 Tuck Hall, Hanover, New Hampshire 03755, USA

    • Adam M. Kleinbaum
  3. Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, Dartmouth College, 6207 Moore Hall, Hanover, New Hampshire 03755, USA

    • Thalia Wheatley

Authors

  1. Search for Carolyn Parkinson in:

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Contributions

C.P., A.M.K. and T.W. conceived and designed the study. C.P. and A.M.K. collected the data. C.P. analysed the data. C.P., A.M.K. and T.W. wrote the paper.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Carolyn Parkinson.

Supplementary information

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    Supplementary Information

    Supplementary Figures 1–4, Supplementary Tables 1–3, Supplementary Methods, Supplementary References.