This article is part of the Research Topic Towards a neuroscience of social interaction


Front. Hum. Neurosci., 21 June 2012 | doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2012.00190

Illuminating the dark matter of social neuroscience: Considering the problem of social interaction from philosophical, psychological, and neuroscientific perspectives

  • 1Berlin School of Mind and Brain, Institute for Philosophy, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, Berlin, Germany
  • 2Center for Subjectivity Research, University of Copenhagen, Copenhagen, Denmark
  • 3Department of Social Neuroscience, Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences, Leipzig, Germany

Successful human social interaction depends on our capacity to understand other people's mental states and to anticipate how they will react to our actions. Despite its importance to the human condition, the exact mechanisms underlying our ability to understand another's actions, feelings, and thoughts are still a matter of conjecture. Here, we consider this problem from philosophical, psychological, and neuroscientific perspectives. In a critical review, we demonstrate that attempts to draw parallels across these complementary disciplines is premature: The second-person perspective does not map directly to Interaction or Simulation theories, online social cognition, or shared neural network accounts underlying action observation or empathy. Nor does the third-person perspective map onto Theory-Theory (TT), offline social cognition, or the neural networks that support Theory of Mind (ToM). Moreover, we argue that important qualities of social interaction emerge through the reciprocal interplay of two independent agents whose unpredictable behavior requires that models of their partner's internal state be continually updated. This analysis draws attention to the need for paradigms in social neuroscience that allow two individuals to interact in a spontaneous and natural manner and to adapt their behavior and cognitions in a response contingent fashion due to the inherent unpredictability in another person's behavior. Even if such paradigms were implemented, it is possible that the specific neural correlates supporting such reciprocal interaction would not reflect computation unique to social interaction but rather the use of basic cognitive and emotional processes combined in a unique manner. Finally, we argue that given the crucial role of social interaction in human evolution, ontogeny, and every-day social life, a more theoretically and methodologically nuanced approach to the study of real social interaction will nevertheless help the field of social cognition to evolve.

Keywords: mentalizing, online/offline social cognition, second-person perspective, simulation, social interaction, social neuroscience, stimulus independent thoughts, theory-theory

Citation: Przyrembel M, Smallwood J, Pauen M and Singer T (2012) Illuminating the dark matter of social neuroscience: Considering the problem of social interaction from philosophical, psychological, and neuroscientific perspectives. Front. Hum. Neurosci. 6:190. doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2012.00190

Received: 29 February 2012; Accepted: 07 June 2012;
Published online: 21 June 2012.

Edited by:

Leonhard Schilbach, Max-Planck-Institute for Neurological Research, Germany

Reviewed by:

Cristina Becchio, Università degli Studi di Torino, Italy
Riitta Hari, Helsinki University of Technology, Finland
Shaun Gallagher, University of Memphis, USA

Copyright: © 2012 Przyrembel, Smallwood, Pauen and Singer. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution Non Commercial License, which permits non-commercial use, distribution, and reproduction in other forums, provided the original authors and source are credited.

*Correspondence: Tania Singer, Department of Social Neuroscience, Max Planck Institute for Human and Cognitive Brain Sciences, Stephanstraße 1A, Leipzig 04103, Germany. e-mail:

Back to top