Children’s brain scans unveil areas that are responsible for perceiving social interactions

“I always tried to avoid social occasions but when I couldn’t get out of them I’d end up sitting in a corner, lost in a world of my own. Since then [being diagnosed with Asperger syndrome], I’ve tried to learn more about things, such as understanding body language and facial expressions, which had previously eluded me”, says Simon Perks, a person living with  Asperger syndrome, a condition that is part of the range of the Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Ellie, a teenager with the same syndrome also shares: “I really couldn’t deal with being in a classroom with other people all day, when all I wanted was to be alone. I didn’t know how to talk to people or make friends and being close to others made me very uncomfortable.” [1]

How do humans recognize social interactions in the first place? In this feature, we will explore not only that but particularly, if there is a difference between the way children and adults recognize social interactions. So, do humans born with this ability?

The testimonials we displayed in the beginning show how social interactions are present in our daily lives and how people with ASD experience difficulties in dealing with them. Parents of children with ASD, seem to notice the signs of these type of difficulties during the first three years of their child’s life [2][3], enhancing the importance of recognizing social interactions.

From a biological point of view, this makes sense, since humans are social beings and perform different interactions with each other. It is therefore beneficial to understand the behaviour of others. One must wonder, that if we evolved to be social, our brains may have evolved to better understand the social interactions of our species. Following this idea, we may find the key to our question in our brains.

Researchers were able to identify certain regions in the brain that seem to be associated with the perception of social interactions. However, up until recently, it wasn’t so obvious if children recognized social interactions as adults do. There is evidence that children as young as 18 months can understand some social cues, such as collaborative actions by two people[4] [5], and they appear to have a preference for individuals that help other individuals [6].

Recently, a team from Bangor University added some knowledge to this puzzle, by seeing-through some indications regarding children’s brain structure and its development. The study, published in the Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience journal this month, suggests that the way we process social interactions changes as we grow.

Although the brain is a complex organ, and several regions play their part, the scientists noticed interesting results in a particular brain region, the STS – superior temporal sulcus. STS had been reported previously, as being important in the perception of social interactions, such as body movement and facial recognition.

Jon Walbrin is the main author of the study and is currently a researcher at Proaction Lab, a Cognitive Neuroscience laboratory at the University of Coimbra, Portugal. “This research helps us to better understand the social functions of the STS – especially social interactions, that have not previously been investigated in much detail – and to determine how responses in this region change across childhood”, says the researcher.

The team used functional magnetic resonance imaging to study the differences in the brain responses for social interactions between a group of 29 adults and a group of 31 children. They presented stimuli from three different conditions to the participants: one representing social interaction between two people, the second condition with no interaction and the third one as control stimuli.

They used the difference between the results from the first condition and the second to measure what the researchers call “selectivity” for social interactions. The results implied that children’s ability to perceive these interactions were not completely matured yet. Their brains weren’t as responsive as adults brains’ were. Moreover, adults showed STS activation in both brain hemispheres, while children were more right-lateralized. According to the author that is not a random result. “A lot of social visual processes (such as identifying faces and bodies) tend to be stronger in the right hemisphere of the brain”.

Additional exploratory findings showed that in older children’s (9-11 years old) the activation in STS was more similar to adults than to younger children (6-8 years old), pointing to a gradual development of the brain related to social interaction perception from early childhood, into the adolescence. “The results suggest that as children develop, they tend to rely more on both hemispheres (rather than just the right hemisphere), for perceiving social interactions” explains Walbrin.

“I think the fact that interaction perception/understanding develops across childhood (rather than being completely inborn) may be useful from a cultural point of view”. The researcher clarifies that there is a lot of contextual information that shapes how we see and evaluate interactions. For example, there might be differences in what is socially acceptable in terms of body language and vocal tone, in an interaction between Chinese people, compared to American people. “Consequently it is useful that our experiences help shape how we see interactions.”

Lately, there has been an emergence of studies that look into the human brain, to understand which regions play a part in our cognitive skills. “Studying the maturation of areas closely related to the perception of social information is particularly relevant to understand disorders of social cognition, such as schizophrenia and autism spectrum disorders”, says the author.

In addition to shedding some light on cognition-related diseases, studying the brain is a way to understand better the fundamental abilities humans have. We can keep doing many more questions about our species, and who knows, some answers may be around the corner. After all, science is made by a global effort of discovering new things, including ourselves.

[1] ** These testimonials were collected in the UK’s National Autistic


[2] Landa RJ (2008). Diagnosis of autism spectrum disorders in the first 3 years of life. Nat Clin Pract Neurol. 4 (3): 138–147. https://doi:10.1038/ncpneuro0731. PMID 18253102.

[3]  Neurodevelopmental, T., & Group, W. (2012). Autism Spectrum Disorder, (October), 2012–2013.

[4] C. Fawcett, G. Gredeb?ck (2013) Infants use social context to bind actions into a collaborative sequence. Dev. Sci., 16 (6), pp. 841-849

[5] Henderson, A. M., & Woodward, A. L. (2011). “Let’s work together”: what do infants understand about collaborative goals?. Cognition, 121(1), 12–21.

[6] J.K. Hamlin, K. Wynn, P. Bloom (2007) Social evaluation by preverbal infants Nature, 450 (7169)

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