The social lives of humans shape and influence biological processes taking place in our brains, according to a new theoretical framework linking sociological thinking with insights from neuroscience.
The new framework, from Professor Mike Kelly, sociologist at the Primary Care Unit and Professor Paul Fletcher, Bernard Wolfe Professor of Health Neuroscience and colleagues from the University of Cambridge, factors in the role of the brain when thinking about how human social life works.
How we navigate the unpredictable world around us by engaging with our social environments, using our existing knowledge and developing and correcting our expectations, is intimately connected with predictive brain processes described in neuroscience, say the scientists.
Neuroscientists use the concept of ‘predictive processing’ to describe how the human brain makes sense of the world: our brains process inputs from inside our bodies and from our changing external worlds and make inferences about the causes of the inputs.
Meanwhile, sociologists build on the idea of the ‘self’ – where the brain and the social world interact – and describe how we construct and adjust simplified versions of our environments, called ideal types and typifications, in order to make sense of the social world, interpret our experiences and anticipate what’s ahead. By integrating the two approaches, the authors provide a new framework for considering how human interactions work.
“There is a growing recognition within cognitive neuroscience that the brain functions as a model of its world, and, importantly, of the other brains in that world”, explained Professor Paul Fletcher. He said: “A deeper understanding of the brain therefore demands that we find ways of linking insights across many levels of description, from the neuronal and computational to the environmental and social. Over the course of many conversations within a diverse team, we have been repeatedly struck by a cross-disciplinary resonance of ideas from the basic processes of perception and inference to the higher level social structures and practices. This paper has been an attempt to identify and explore those shared ideas”.
Our approach brings together concepts from sociologists and from neuroscientists. It’s as if we have been looking at different views of the same mountain”
– Professor Mike Kelly, Primary Care Unit
Professor Kelly said: “We’ve been addressing the same phenomenon – our ability to engage with the social world around us. Our new framework proposes that the prediction-based generative modelling described in neuroscience is linked through the concept of the self to the ideal types, typifications and social practices as defined by sociologists. Our paper traces these different ways of thinking and sets out a unified approach, which helps to explain, for example, why social and health inequalities are embedded and reinforced over time. Human environments vary and so the modelling processes in our brains vary too, constraining and giving rise to our social behaviours, which may cause advantage or disadvantage”.
This paper arose from work at the St John’s College Reading Group on Health Inequalities at the University of Cambridge and was supported by the Wellcome Trust, the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the Annual Fund of St John’s College, Cambridge.
Michael P Kelly, Natasha M. Kriznik, Ann Louise Kinmonth & Paul C. Fletcher. The brain, self and society: a social-neuroscience model of predictive processing. Social Neuroscience.
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About Professor Kelly
About Professor Fletcher
About Dr Natasha Kriznik
Media enquiries: Lucy Lloyd, Communications, Primary Care Unit, University of Cambridge
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