Developmental Social Neuroscience
Therefore, another focus of our research is on the development of social behavior, a topic previously headed by Dr Nikolaus Steinbeis. Here, we are particularly interested in understanding the changes in children’s ability to take other people’s perspectives, how they understand their own feelings as well as those of others and how they learn to control their own emotions and behavior. Our efforts have focused largely on identifying the developmental mechanism underlying different routes of social cognition and social emotions while also focusing on the development of social interaction and decision making.
For instance, studies on social and economic decision making in children using game-theoretical paradigms have pinpointed the importance of executive functions and particularly impulse control for the generation of behaviors typically described as mature, such as being fair or patient. We could show that changes in these behaviors during childhood are critically tied to the maturation of cortical structures known to develop late in ontogeny. Thus, to address our questions, we combine the use of a wide range of methods, including functional and structural imaging with extensive batteries of behavioral tests. Our work has thus made considerable progress in exploring the developmental time course of social emotions and cognition from the age of 6 onwards, and has identified some of the relevant neurocognitive mechanisms that allow children to increasingly make socially adequate sound decisions and resolve conflicts in their own and another’s emotional experience.
Future studies will focus on extending these findings to include both even younger children and adolescents. Studies on younger children will focus on the critical periods at which certain key social faculties such as empathy, theory of mind and the ability to deploy cognitive control emerge and which brain structures give rise to these. Exploring the period of adolescence on the other hand will allow us to bridge studies on children and adults and to see if changes in this period follow a linear trajectory or are in fact subject to the kind of non-linear changes that are typically observed in brain development during this phase. Particularly this last question offers exciting avenues for potential intervention, given that such a presumed reorganization indicates heightened plasticity.