Humans are intensely social beings who live in complex groups. One major challenge for the human brain is to enable us to effectively navigate and benefit from this complex social environment. This project will examine the early development of the brain systems that enable us to process and learn from third-person social interactions. The researchers will investigate brain, cognitive and behavioral development during infancy with a specific focus on observing social interactions. By revealing how brain processes underpinning early infant social and cognitive development unfold, this research will fill an important gap in our knowledge and has broad implications for understanding healthy and atypical development. The project is multidisciplinary in nature as it uses a cutting-edge approach combining neuroscience, behavioral and experience-sampling methods. The findings will be broadly applicable to multiple disciplines and will inform the brain, cognitive and social sciences. The planned experiments will provide valuable research opportunities and unique training for students. The project has implications for early education, intervention and may help guide public policy decisions concerning infant and child development.

The current project tests the hypothesis that brain systems in prefrontal and temporal cortex begin to specialize in third-person social interaction processing during infancy. To this end, this project will (i) examine developmental changes in the neural processing of social interactions during infancy using a multi-method neuroimaging approach, (ii) assess the characteristics and functions of this brain system, (iii) investigate variability and the role of experience in the emergence of this brain system in a longitudinal study. Uncovering the neurodevelopmental roots of social interaction processing in infancy will have a wide-ranging impact as it informs our understanding of human nature and cognition in profound ways and has the potential to inspire further research into social intelligence in man and machines. Through this project and its findings it will be possible to foster a better understanding among the public of how important early social development occurs and what role brain development and experience plays.

This award reflects NSF's statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation's intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences (BCS)
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Peter Vishton
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University of Virginia
United States
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