Give and Take: How We Recognise Interactions

Tübingen neuroscientists investigate how actions that relate between individuals are recognised and represented in the brain

July 02, 2018

Social behaviour relies on interactions with others. How does our brain perceive and process these interactions? Until recently, psychologists and neuroscientists have mainly investigated the neuronal processing of individual actions. A team of neuroscientists of three Tübingen research institutes has now shown that social interactions are represented as pairs of actions of the interacting partners in the human brain. The study, whose results may influence future autism research, will be published in PNAS.

Dancing, shaking hands, playing ballgames – all activities of this kind rely on interconnected action pairs of at least two persons, such as „giving and taking“ or „throwing and catching“. How does the brain process interactions in which the actions of several individuals are interrelated? Do we recog-nise interactions such as these by correlating the individual partners’ motions on a very basic, per-ception-based level? Or do we first analyse their actions cognitively and attribute a meaning to them?

A collaborative study of neuroscientists belonging to the Tübingen Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics (MPI BC), the Hertie Institute for Clinical Brain Research (HIH) and the Werner Reichardt Centre for Integrative Neuroscience (CIN) has tackled these questions. The researchers utilised of a virtual reality environment, in which a life-sized three-dimensional animated avatar performed various actions: some clearly recognisable as parts of an action pair, others action mixes in between. The researchers exploited an adaptation effect: unclear stimuli will be differently interpreted based on what stimuli had been in effect earlier. For instance, if probands are repeatedly shown a “giving” gesture and are subsequently confronted with an unclear mix of a “giving” and “throwing”, they will interpret the action mix as “throwing” in the majority of trials. 

The researchers were intrigued to not only find this adaptation effect with regard to the first part of a social action sequence, such as “giving”, or “throwing”. The effect also occurred when the matching second part of the sequence was shown first: “taking” or “catching” in these instances. It appears that the very neurons responsible for representing “giving” also respond to its matching opposite “taking”. The action pair “giving-taking” is represented as one unit in the brain. Further control experiments showed that only those actions which are part of a matching pair will trigger the above-mentioned adaptation effect, while completely different actions such as “dancing” will not.

“In the human brain, giving and taking are represented together”, affirms Stephan de la Rosa fro, the MPI for Biological Cybernetic, who conceived the study and performed the experiments together with Leonid Fedorov (HIH/CIN). “Our results show that there are neurons that very likely respond similarly to both halves of an action pair”, says Fedorov’s supervisor Martin Giese (HIH/CIN). Con-cerning the impact of their findings, the authors are optimistic: “In many autistic disorders, the perception of social interactions such as those we have investigated here is impaired. We believe that our results may be an important step on the way to a better understanding of these socio-cognitive disorders.”

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The Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics is studying signal and information processing in the brain. The scientists aim to determine which signals and processes are responsible for creating a coherent percept of our environment and for eliciting the appropriate behavior. Scientists of three departments and several research groups are working towards answering fundamental questions about processing in the brain, using different approaches and methods.
The Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics is one of 84 Max Planck Institutes and facilities that make up the Max Planck Society, Germany's most successful research organization. Since its establishment in 1948, no fewer than 18 Nobel laureates have emerged from the ranks of its scientists, putting it on a par with the best and most prestigious research institutions worldwide. All Institutes conduct basic research in the service of the general public in the natural sciences, life sciences, social sciences, and the humanities.

The University of Tübingen
The University of Tübingen is one of eleven universities judged excellent under the German government’s Excellence Initia-tive, and ranks well in international comparisons. Tübingen is one of the world’s foremost locations for neuroscientific re-search. Along with translational immunology and cancer research, microbiology and infection research, and molecular plant biology, it makes Tübingen a cutting-edge center of research in the Life Sciences. Further areas of core research are in Ma-chine Learning, Geoscience and Environmental Science; Archaeology and Anthropology; Language and Cognition; and Education and the Media. More than 27,700 students from Germany and around the world are currently enrolled at the Univer-sity of Tübingen, enjoying a broad spectrum of some 300 different study programs.

The Werner Reichardt Centre for Integrative Neuroscience (CIN)
The Werner Reichardt Centre for Integrative Neuroscience (CIN) is an interdisciplinary institution at the University of Tübingen funded by the DFG’s German Excellence Initiative program. Its aim is to deepen our understanding of how the brain generates functions and how brain diseases impair them, guided by the conviction that any progress in understanding can only be achieved through an integrative approach spanning multiple levels of organization.

The Hertie Institute for Clinical Brain Research (HIH)
Founded in 2001, the Hertie Institute for Clinical Brain Research (HIH) was brought to life by an agreement between several entities: the non-profit Hertie Foundation, the State of Baden-Württemberg, the University of Tübingen and its Medical Faculty, and the University Hospital of Tübingen. The HIH deals with one of the most fascinating fields of today´s research: the decoding of the human brain. The main question is how certain diseases affect brain functions. In its daily work, the HIH builds the bridge from basic research to clinical application. Its goal is to facilitate new and more effective strategies for diagnosis, therapy and prevention. At present, the HIH is home to a total of 21 professors and about 380 employees.

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