Social stuff happens in the brain

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Randall points me to a paper, Brain Regions for Perceiving and Reasoning About Other People in School-Aged Children:

Neuroimaging studies with adults have identified cortical regions recruited when people think about other people’s thoughts (theory of mind): temporo-parietal junction, posterior cingulate, and medial prefrontal cortex. These same regions were recruited in 13 children aged 6–11 years when they listened to sections of a story describing a character’s thoughts compared to sections of the same story that described the physical context. A distinct region in the posterior superior temporal sulcus was implicated in the perception of biological motion. Change in response selectivity with age was observed in just one region. The right temporo–parietal junction was recruited equally for mental and physical facts about people in younger children, but only for mental facts in older children.

The sample included 7 girls and 6 boys. No mention of sex differences. Though perhaps the methods were too coarse. In any case, aspiring neuroimagers of social intelligence just need to go to a Perl Mongers meeting to recruit cognitive outliers!



  1. Razib, Your mention of Perl Mongers brings up an important question: What’s the best organization (aside from one explicitly for outliers such as Mensa) to go to meet cognitive outliers? 
    What’s an organization or affiliation that, by drawing people for its stated purpose, pulls in people with very quirky personalities? 
    I do not expect Perl Mongers to be the anywhere near the farthest out.

  2. as long as i don’t talk about the singularity too much i find much fruit from discussions with singularitarians.

  3. I’d imagine they could do a decent job recruiting outliers from among the GNXP readership…

  4. What do you mean by “cognitive outliers”? 
    Do you mean high g? (Go to a meeting of academic mathematicians or theoretical physicists.) 
    Do you mean strange personalities / eccentrics? (DefCon, the hacker meeting in Las Vegas might be a good place, or a role-playing or sci fi convention, or Burning Man.) 
    Do you mean on the autism spectrum? (Someone else probably has a better suggestion, but there are probably some meetups in Silicon Valley specifically for self-diagnosed autistics.)

  5. Steve Hsu, I had in mind people on the autistic spectrum. I also had in mind people who aren’t on that spectrum and have unusual personalities for other reasons. 
    Of course, with lower IQs people who are unusual in assorted personality characteristics are doing to do less interesting things with those characteristics than smart people will do. 
    Razib, in order to get notified about followup comments one has to enter an email address that will show up on the page to get screen-scraped by spammers. I didn’t realize that my email address would show up publically. The typical default is not to show it. Why show it?

  6. Randall, 
    For unusual personalities I think you might try DefCon or Burning Man, although you can probably guess what you would find.  
    Re: autistic types, it’s an interesting question. Organized by activity or career, where are you most likely to find them? Although academic science/engineering is pretty tolerant of this personality type there is also a lot of emphasis on the ability to teach students, be collegial, deal with grant agencies. So I might guess some areas of software where someone can work solo, interacting mainly by email, with high value add, might be the place to look. (See, e.g., profiles of Bram Cohen, who, incidentally, I’ve met and doesn’t turn out to be that Aspergian.) How about a Haskell meeting? :-) 
    There is also otaku culture in Japan, which is its own world. The Japanese and British seem to have the most eccentrics per capita… 
    You might look at Tyler Cowen’s book if you are interested in this topic. I recently wrote something about it on my blog.

  7. Steve, 
    I wonder whether World Of Warcraft and other similar online games pull in people with strong cravings for social interactions who have high or low social skills or is the attraction the lack of human contact and yet it is a game? 
    Since people on the autistic spectrum get most of the attention as outliers these days I wonder whether there are types of outliers who have been missed. Thrill seekers come to mind as an example. Maybe dopamine receptors contribute to their tendencies for thrill seeking. But I wonder if there are other outlier types who are less well characterized.

  8. Randall, 
    You raise another interesting question: take each Big 5 personality trait and guess where you can find the largest concentration of outliers for each trait. 
    This psychologist claims that entrepreneurs are likely to display hypomanic tendencies: 
    In my experience he is more or less correct.

  9. Steve, 
    What I wonder: Which rare interests correlate with rare personality characteristics versus rare interests that people fall into by chance. There’s enough different interests and ways of being unique and different that, say, someone trying to make the biggest ball of yarn might just be desiring of fame achievable with little talent. Whereas someone who is, say, a top Linux kernel hacker has enormous talent and also maybe is an introvert or an Aspie. 
    Another point: I think the autistic spectrum is not the only reason people take up less social occupations. Shyness is not the same as autism and some people are just shy. So which occupations attract shy people? Which clubs and hobbies attract shy people?

  10. “Another point: I think the autistic spectrum is not the only reason people take up less social occupations. Shyness is not the same as autism and some people are just shy. “ 
    I agree with this point. All kinds of very different people get lumped into the Aspie category, when in fact the basic category might be ill-defined. Were all taciturn/shy/quiet people like Dirac, Godel, Turing really Aspies (as has been claimed)? Or did they just have a certain type of personality (is there a difference)? Einstein was clearly quite different from the three I listed, yet he is often also characterized as an Aspie. 
    It’s a case of trying to compress individuals in a multi-dimensional space into a few clusters. But there are lots of exceptions. The parameters in this space include both personality traits and cognitive ones. Some people may be good at “mind reading” (modeling the thoughts and motivations of others), but not care for social interaction. Some Aspies are not good at mind reading for some deep cognitive reason but actually crave social interaction. 
    “So which occupations attract shy people? Which clubs and hobbies attract shy people?” 
    Again a complicated question. Are people in the chess club actually shy, or do they in fact crave acceptance and the chance to interact socially with other students (even “normal” ones) but are denied that opportunity from the other side? 
    Certainly a lot of activities require long periods of isolation, mental focus, etc. People who crave social interaction may have a hard time with these. 
    The point has been made that many girls / women who are mathematically talented don’t pursue those endeavors because they would rather be in careers with more human interaction. If there are gender-related differences in such proclivities there may be differences across other groups as well.

  11. Some Aspies are not good at mind reading for some deep cognitive reason but actually crave social interaction. 
    craig newmark.

  12. A number of things hobble social interactions. Here’s a far from complete list and I’d like to hear others: 
    - Poor model of others. Aspies obviously fit this. 
    - Shyness. 
    - Poor verbal skills. You might have a high visual spatial reasoning capability but do poorly with words. The tendency then is it shut up rather than feel like you’ll make a faux pas. Plus, people become impatient with the verbally less skilled. 
    - Greater enjoyment of non-social stuff. Women tend more to like social stuff. Well, the opposite preference exists as well. Guys like physical stuff even if they can read emotions and model others well. 
    Other drives make people more or less social. For example, the drives for sex and for fame cause people to be more social.

  13. hygiene.

  14. ugliness.

  15. This isn’t exactly what you are looking for, and the hypothesis is a bit out of fashion these days (it’s a developmental explanation for shyness), but here you go. Hollingworth is a well known psychologist who studied gifted children, in particular she did a longitudinal study of IQ 180 kids and how they matured into adults. The essay from which this is taken is worth a read. 
    “Hollingworth points out that the exceptionally gifted do not deliberately choose isolation, but are forced into it against their wills. 
    These superior children are not unfriendly or ungregarious by nature. Typically they strive to play with others but their efforts are defeated by the difficulties of the case… Other children do not share their interests, their vocabulary, or their desire to organize activities. … As a result, forms of solitary play develop, and these, becoming fixed as habits, may explain the fact that many highly intellectual adults are shy, ungregarious, and unmindful of human relationships, or even misanthropic and uncomfortable in ordinary social intercourse [3, p. 262].“ 
    There is a rough notion that beyond 2 SD difference in g, meaningful communication becomes difficult. Not communication of factual information, necessarily, but mutual psychological understanding. Obviously as you go out the tail it is harder not to feel isolated from your fellow man ;-) 
    The author of the essay, the late Grady Towers, classifies the development of the highly gifted into 3 categories, similar to what Terman did when revisiting his group at age 40+. It seems that the blogosphere and internet are filled with category 2 people (or wanna be type 2′s). Towers had a stratospheric IQ but worked as a security guard at the time of his murder (age 50 or so). 
    “There appear to be three sorts of childhoods and three sorts of adult social adaptations made by the gifted. The first of these may be called the committed strategy. These individuals were born into upper middle class families, with gifted and well educated parents, and often with gifted siblings. They sometimes even had famous relatives. They attended prestigious colleges, became doctors, lawyers, professors, or joined some other prestigious occupation, and have friends with similar histories. They are the optimally adjusted. They are also the ones most likely to disbelieve that the exceptionally gifted can have serious adjustment problems. 
    The second kind of social adaptation may be called the marginal strategy. These individuals were typically born into a lower socio-economic class, without gifted parents, gifted siblings, or gifted friends. Often they did not go to college at all, but instead went right to work immediately after high school, or even before. And although they may superficially appear to have made a good adjustment to their work and friends, neither work nor friends can completely engage their attention. They hunger for more intellectual challenge and more real companionship than their social environment can supply. So they resort to leading a double life. They compartmentalize their life into a public sphere and a private sphere. In public they go through the motions of fulfilling their social roles, whatever they are, but in private they pursue goals of their own. They are often omnivorous readers, and sometimes unusually expert amateurs in specialized subjects. The double life strategy might even be called the genius ploy, as many geniuses in history have worked at menial tasks in order to free themselves for more important work. Socrates, you will remember was a stone mason, Spinoza was a lens grinder, and even Jesus was a carpenter. The exceptionally gifted adult who works as a parking lot attendant while creating new mathematics has adopted an honored way of life and deserves respect for his courage, not criticism for failing to live up to his abilities. Those conformists who adopt the committed strategy may be pillars of their community and make the world go around, but historically, those with truly original minds have more often adopted the double life tactic. They are ones among the gifted who are most likely to make the world go forward. 
    And finally there are the dropouts. These sometimes bizarre individuals were often born into families in which one or more of the parents were not only exceptionally gifted, but exceptionally maladjusted themselves. This is the worst possible social environment that a gifted child can be thrust into. His parents, often driven by egocentric ambitions of their own, may use him to gratify their own needs for accomplishment. He is, to all intents and purposes, not a living human being to them, but a performing animal, or even an experiment. That is what happened to Sidis, and may be the explanation for all those gifted who “burn out” as he did. (Readers familiar with the Terman study will recognize the committed strategy and the marginal strategy as roughly similar to the adjustment patterns of Terman’s A and C groups.)”

  16. Steve, I agree that for smart people one reason they become less social is that they are far too smart for those around them. That certainly describes my life, especially my childhood. I took up blogging in part to interact more with smarter people. That ability to interact with more smart people probably is one of the attractions for becoming an academic. 
    A friend went to MIT at age 16 and he told me it greatly improved his social skills and his approach to other humans because it provided him the opportunity to interact with real peers. Finally he knew lots of people as smart as him.

  17. Randall,  
    People with chizotypal and schizoid personality disorders might be interesting too. They (we?) are unsocial for different reasons than aspies. I don’t know where to find em in large concentrations though.

  18. Steve, 
    I fall into category #2 above almost completely. 
    Schizoid personality type corresponds to Myers-Briggs INTJ pretty much. IIRC about 40% of regular GNXP readers are self described as INTJ – including me.