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The brain repurposed our sense of physical distance to understand social closeness

The use of fMRI scans has revolutionised the field of neuroscience, allowing researchers previously hidden glimpses into human neural activity. However, as Thalia Wheatley, the Lincoln Filene Professor in Human Relations at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, argues in this clip from the interview series Closer to Truth, fMRI research has thus far largely been limited to situations that don’t resemble real life – people laying in scanners while being flashed images of their loved ones, for instance. Working within the emerging field of social neuroscience, Wheatley believes the next step for researchers like herself is to create experiments that more closely resemble genuine social interaction. Offering one fascinating example of the kind of next-generation fMRI research that she and her colleagues are pursuing, she describes an experiment in which neural activity was found to be similar in subjects considering the concepts ‘close proximity’ and ‘close relationships’. This indicates something rather surprising about the brain – that it repurposes primitive circuitry to help us grasp abstract concepts, behave socially and navigate our complex modern worlds.

26 May 2022

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