Interview by Natalia Lomaia, edited by Angela Barrett
Dr. Pascal Vrtička (Ph.D.) is a senior researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, Germany. Natalia Lomaia of online magazine Sapere Aude caught up with Dr. Vrtička as he prepares to present his work on The Social Neuroscience of Attachment at The Future of Neuroscience conference in May. For the full-length interview please click here
Visit the event webpage to find out more and to register for the conference.
What field of neuroscience do you work in?
I am a social cognitive affective neuroscientist with strong ties to developmental psychology, and particularly attachment theory. My interdisciplinary research focuses on normal as well as disturbed functioning of the human social brain.
In basic terms, what is social neuroscience?
Social neuroscience is an interdisciplinary field devoted to understanding the biological mechanisms that underlie social processes and behavior. Rather than looking at the functioning of the body and the brain in isolation as has been done in traditional neurobiology for many years, social neuroscience acknowledges that the social environment has a strong influence on biological and brain processes.
How did you become particularly interested in social neuroscience?
I was interested in how the brain works from very early on. I initially started to study biology and biochemistry but I quite quickly realized that for me it was not enough to understand how cells or organs work. I really wanted to look at a broader perspective to see how biology in the brain actually makes us who we are.
I think social neuroscience is the field that enables us to start asking questions like “what biologically makes us human?” or “what biologically drives our wish to interact socially with others?”.
What methods do you use for studying social neuroscience?
I use neuroimaging (fMRI, fNIRS, EEG), biological methods (such as epigenetics, assessment of immune system functioning and telomere length measurement), psychological questionnaires, narrative-based methods, and behavioral assessments.
What are your research aims, and in which direction would you like to develop the field of social neuroscience?
I would like to combine state-of-the-art social neuroscience methods with the developmental psychological framework of attachment theory, and in this approach, I would like to particularly emphasize inter-individual differences in relationship quality.
I am also trying to integrate two different methodological approaches within social neuroscience - in particular, so-called first-person social neuroscience investigating the biological and brain basis of social processes in one person in isolation, with so-called second-person social neuroscience assessing social processes in two (or more) directly interacting individuals.
Within second-person social neuroscience, we are specifically concentrating on synchrony as a new measure of interpersonal attunement and communication, and thus ultimately relationship quality. We are combining both methodological approaches with classical measures from attachment theory.
What have you been working on recently?
On the one hand, my research has been focusing on describing the neural basis of human attachment over the course of development. Therefore, I have been moving from predominantly assessing adults towards also investigating adolescents and children by using a first-person social neuroscience approach.
On the other hand, we have advanced second-person social neuroscience by assessing synchrony in parent-child pairs as a function of parent-child relationship quality, and particularly parent-child attachment.
Finally, we are also moving into the area of intergenerational transmission of attachment, which means that we are interested in the mechanisms of how attachment from one generation is transmitted to the next.
Is it accurate to suggest that social neuroscience shows that humans are fundamentally a social species?
Yes, I think that social neuroscience has indeed shown that we are intrinsically social, that we are wired for being social. Such biological predisposition for being social likely has its origins in the fact that humans, as compared to other mammals, are born relatively prematurely and therefore cannot survive without care and protection from others. Furthermore, because humans have a very long developmental period, we rely upon care, protection, and guidance from others beyond survival for many years. Thus, what counts for us is not only to have close social bonds from very early on, but also to have high quality social bonds that nurture us and positively support our physiological and psychological development.
What the above considerations suggest is that in humans, close social bonds are not only crucial in early life to ensure survival. The need for social connection extends way beyond infancy to close social bonds between romantic partners (i.e. parents) and between grandparents and grandchildren. And of course, the higher the quality of such bonds across the life span, the better.
How do you see modern culture impacting our social connections?
Unfortunately, loneliness is on the rise. We are in fact talking about a loneliness epidemic, because so many people are affected. We know that being socially disconnected has the same detrimental effects on health as, for example, smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and is more predictive of early death than the effects of air pollution or physical inactivity. So this really is a serious issue that not only affects older people, but any age range.
We should keep in mind that loneliness particularly affects the poor, unemployed, displaced and migrant populations. These people have fewer social interactions to begin with, and their social disconnection is oftentimes externally imposed rather than personally chosen. We should therefore particularly focus on these vulnerable populations when it comes to prevention and intervention.
What do you consider the most important developments in social neuroscience to be so far?
Luckily, I was doing my PhD at a time when new neuroscientific methods were becoming more widely available. These methods allow us to look into live brains, especially methods such as fMRI or EEG and, more recently, fNIRS. We thus have the really unique opportunity to look into a brain while it is actually computing something, including social information. These days we can even look at two brains simultaneously and see how they compute social information together – maybe even how they co-create something new out of their social connection.