Social interaction has been found to be significant in the retention of memory. It is through communicating with others a person keeps their body active through conversation, allows them to release stress, and stave off depression.

Recently scientists have been able to view the way our brains behave while interacting with others in a social situation. A study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, announcing the use of a computer to sort out changing patterns of brain activity during interaction.

“When players compete against each other in a game, they try to make a mental model of the other person’s intentions, what they’re going to do and how they’re going to play, so they can play strategically against them,” said postdoctoral researcher Kyle Mathewson of the University of Illinois. Mathewson worked on the study with graduate student Lusha Zhu, and economics professor Ming Hsu, who now is at the University of California, Berkeley. “We were interested in how this process happens in the brain.”

Prior to this study other research only involved how one learns from consequences of their actions. This is called “reinforcement learning,” according to Mathewson. From these studies they were able to show increased activity in the basal ganglia, the area of the brain known to control muscles movement, setting goals and learning. The signals were believed to come from through the signals from the neurotransmitter dopamine.

“That’s been pretty well studied and it’s been figured out that dopamine seems to carry the signal for learning about the outcome of our own actions,” Mathewson said. “But how we learn from the actions of other people wasn’t very well characterized.”

“Belief learning” is what Mathewson and his colleagues’ calls interactive learning.

In order to understand how the brain processes competition with others the researchers used a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scan to map the activity in the brain of participants while they formed strategy.

Volunteers played a game called a Patent Race. The object of the game was to invest more than one’s opponents in each round in order to win a prize, while minimizing their own losses. The fMRI showed the activity in the brain as soon as the player learned how much his/her opponent had wagered, and the outcome of the trial. A computer then evaluated the players’ strategies and the mapping involved during each learning episode.

“Both types of learning were tracked by activity in the ventral striatum, which is part of the basal ganglia,” Mathewson said. “That’s traditionally known to be involved in reinforcement learning, so we were a little bit surprised to see that belief learning also was represented in that area.”

What they found was the those who took part in the “Belief learning” model showed activity in the rostral anterior cingulate, found deep in the front of the brain in an area known to be involved in error processing, regret, and “learning with a more social and emotional flavor,” Mathewson said. It helps them to see what goes through the brain as it’s involved in strategic planning. According to Hsu, “this may aid in the understanding of neuropsychiatric illnesses that undermine those processes.”

“There are a number of mental disorders that affect the brain circuits implicated in our study,” Hsu said. “These include schizophrenia, depression and Parkinson’s disease. They all affect these dopaminergic regions in the frontal and striatal brain areas. So to the degree that we can better understand these ubiquitous social functions in strategic settings, it may help us understand how to characterize and, eventually, treat the social deficits that are symptoms of these diseases.”



About the author:

Ron White is a two-time U.S.A. Memory Champion and memory training expert. As a memory speaker he travels the world to speak before large groups or small company seminars, demonstrating his memory skills and teaching others how to improve their memory, and how important a good memory is in all phases of your life.



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