The Infant Mind: Origins of the Social Brain

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But is there any human evidence, beyond the ethological studies cited, to support such a contention? Several investigations have pointed to a possible relationship between ToM and threat perception. Connolly et al. As pointed out in the introduction, this area is centrally implicated in the control of both face recognition and mindreading. In other words, threat perception and ToM are subserved by the same neural circuitry. The connection of the superior temporal sulcus to tonic immobility is strengthened by other findings as well. Schultz et al. Of course, such a discriminatory ability is of paramount importance in predator-prey relationships where it is imperative, at every moment, to know if the enemy is moving towards or away from oneself.

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Similarly, studies have shown that the superior colliculus , another structure involved in the control of ToM, is implicated in the visual detection and recognition of threatening stimuli such as snakes and faces with emotional expressions Maior et al. This overlap in function is most pronounced during infancy, a finding also in line with the present hypothesis as TI and IS are also more pronounced in immature individuals. Interestingly, the superior colliculus has also been implicated in the control of both the eye movements and the circadian timing of REM sleep Doricchi et al.

Impressive evidence also comes from studies of the orienting response , an emergency reaction to unexpected stimuli. Here, several studies have pointed to a rather unexpected finding: the orienting response in humans, though not a social behavior per se, is directly related to the faculty of ToM. The two reactions are actually subserved by the same neural circuits Corbetta et al.

This makes perfect sense in light of the present hypothesis as the orienting response is a well-known defensive maneuver, the first in line of the mammalian defensive cascade. Much of this threat perception and intention detection is done with the help of the eyes, through eye contact and gaze following. For this reason, other than in aggressive encounters and predatory-prey relations, direct eye contact is a relatively rare occurrence in the animal kingdom. Whenever it occurs it is necessarily accompanied by appeasement displays Morris : —; Dixon Humans are a blatant exception to this near-rule.

How did humans develop a knack for this behavior, most strikingly evidenced by the almost compulsive eye-contact seeking of infants?

The Infant Mind: Origins of the Social Brain

A possibility is that a hypertrophy in the eye contact seeking and gaze-following components of TI and IS, along with an enlargement of the prefrontal cortex, made this behavioral change possible more on this later. However, not all humans like eye contact to the same degree. Autistic people, in particular, have inborn difficulties with eye contact, difficulties that go well beyond personal idiosyncrasies and cultural conventions.

For such people eye contact is a highly distracting and distressing event, one which they habitually avoid Baron-Cohen et al. More than that, recent research has shown that, like in many mammalian species, autistic persons experience eye contact as a direct threat Dalton et al. It is as if the neural circuitry that makes eye contact non-threatening, and even attractive, for the majority of people is defective or absent in the case of autistic children.

Tonic immobility is the main inhibitory reflex of the mammalian defensive cascade and is predicated on cholinergic neurotransmission instead of aminergic neurotransmission Thompson ; Klemm ; Kozlowska et al. Are there any such traces? Considerable support comes from studies that have looked at the relationship of ToM to higher order functions. Several studies have shown that inhibitory control , the ability to suppress or moderate prepotent responses, is intimately related to the faculty of ToM.

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Carlson and Moses , for example, showed that performance in tasks requiring a novel response in the face of a conflicting and prepotent response, as well as tasks requiring the delay of a prepotent response, were significantly related to ToM. Chasiotis et al. Taken together, these findings show that inhibitory control is a crucial enabling factor in the development and function of ToM. Support also comes from studies of the relationship between temperament and cognitive development.


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It is well-known that temperamental differences have a direct bearing on parent-child interactions and can even influence the attachment process Thomas and Chess ; Kagan One theory that has made specific predictions about this relationship, and garnered considerable support, is the emotional reactivity hypothesis Hare Wellman et al. Similarly, Mink et al. A remarkable fact is that some domesticated animals seem to have cognitive abilities that rival, and occasionally even surpass, those of primates.

Dogs, for example, are unusually skilled at reading human social and communicative behavior: they readily follow pointing gestures, seek eye contact, gaze follow, and even show rudimentary forms of ToM Miklosi et al. These findings, which have perplexed scientists for a long time, are now beginning to be understood within a unified framework. Domestication induces a number of critical changes in the biology and ethology of animals Wilkins et al.


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Studies have shown that this change is mediated by a downregulation in the activity of the sympathetic nervous system, the system which controls the fight-or-flight reflex. Domesticated foxes, for example, exhibit reduced adrenal gland size and have a three- to fivefold reduction in both basal and stress-induced blood cortisol levels Osadschuk ; Trut et al.

Another way of understanding the prosocial changes brought about by domestication is by realizing that selective breading for tameness tends to produce neotenous changes in the offspring, both in the sense of growth retardation and in the sense of pedomorphic features.

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These two ways of understanding the effects of domestication are, furthermore, intrinsically related as immature individuals are by default less aggressive than their grown-up counterparts. The enlarged window of socialization during infancy in domesticated animals is, hence, to a large extent predicated on the prolonged immaturity of their hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal system which prevents them from resorting to fearful reactivity as often, and as forcefully, as their wild-type kin. The animals were kept captive, lived in enclosed spaces, and subjected to manual restraint, all proprietary triggers of defensive immobilization reactions.


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After all, the essence of tameness is that an animal readily yields to its master. This tipping of the scales in favor of passive defenses as opposed to aggressive defenses may actually have enabled the evolution of the devotional tie between dogs and humans. According to several scholars this curbing of the aggressive drive, a kind of self-domestication , also played an important role in human evolution Morris ; Eccles ; Hare ; Hare et al.

Biological, environmental, and cultural factors may have jointly contributed to a critical reduction in sympathetic nervous system activity during early childhood, thus enlarging the window of socialization, and enabling distinctly human forms of learning and cooperation to evolve. The present article has highlighted two possible, and interrelated, ways through which this pacification and enculturation process may have proceeded. One of the points that I have tried to convey throughout this article is that the default mode of infants is that of a motionless and calm alertness , a mode also common to defensively immobilized animals and hypnotized subjects cf.

Peiper ; Krojanker ; Vrugt and Pederson ; Yoshida et al.

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In particular, it is a prerequisite for the emergence of ToM. It follows from this that disturbances in this default mode can lead to serious developmental problems. A good case in point is offered, once again, by autism. It has been known for quite some time that autistic children show sensorimotor deficits, for example movement disorders, much earlier than they show cognitive and social deficits Kanner ; P.

Teitelbaum et al. This rigidity and tension is indicative of a postural dysregulation. This, however, is a difficult task for many autistic people. Several studies have shown that they suffer from a general over-activation of their sympathetic nervous system and a corresponding under-activation of their parasympathetic nervous system Kushki et al. This imbalance between sympathetic and parasympathetic tone, between neural excitation and inhibition, could actually help explain some of their developmental problems Rubenstein and Merzenich But how is this imbalance expressed on the neurophysiological level?

One possibility is that autistic children suffer from a deficit in cholinergic neurotransmission , as this type of neurotransmission has been shown to play a central role in the regulation of muscle tone.

From Birth to Two: the Neuroscience of Infant Development

Gall et al. Takakusaki et al. Similarly, in humans the pedunculopontine nucleus is responsible for gait and postural control Morita et al. Importantly, these brainstem nuclei, and adjacent areas, have also been implicated in the control of TI and REM sleep Lai and Siegel ; Klemm ; Dergacheva et al. Several studies have pointed to cholinergic abnormalities in the cerebral cortex and basal forebrain of autistic people.

These abnormalities cover the whole gamut and range from pathological involvement of cholinergic nuclei to altered expression of acetylcholine receptors Perry et al. In most cases, these changes amount to a significant reduction in the functionality of the brains cholinergic system. Interestingly, these cholinergic abnormalities also seem to extend to the function of the cerebellum, a recent focus of attention in studies of autism.