Neural Circuitry of Social Valuation
Few aspects of human cognition are more personal than the choices we make. Our decisions — from the mundane to the impossibly complex — continually shape the courses of our lives. In recent years, researchers have applied the tools of neuroscience to understand the mechanisms that underlie decision making, as part of the new discipline of decision neuroscience. A primary goal of this emerging field has been to identify the processes that underlie specific decision variables, including the value of rewards, the uncertainty associated with particular outcomes, and the consequences of social interactions. Here, across three independent studies, I focus on the neural circuitry supporting social valuation — which shapes our social interactions and interpersonal choices. In the first study (Chapter 2), I demonstrate that social valuation relies on the posterior ventromedial prefrontal cortex (pVMPFC). Extending these findings, I next show that idiosyncratic responses within pVMPFC predict individual differences in complex social decision scenarios (Chapter 3). In addition, I also demonstrate that decisions involving other people (e.g., donations to a charitable organization) produce increased activation in brain regions associated with social cognition, particularly the temporal-parietal junction (TPJ). Finally, in my last study (Chapter 4), I employ functional connectivity analyses and show that social cognition regions — including the TPJ — exhibit increased connectivity with pVMPFC during social valuation, an effect that depends upon individual differences in preferences for social stimuli. Collectively, these results demonstrate that the computation of social value relies on distributed neural circuitry, including both value regions and social cognition regions. Future research on social valuation and interpersonal choice must build upon this emerging theme by linking neural circuits and behavior.
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