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111 | 2012
Annuaire du Collège de France 2010-2011
Résumé des cours et travaux 111e année
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Social Cognitive Neuroscience: Part 1

Uta Frith
p. 882-883

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Similarities and differences between social species

1It has often been observed that human beings are intensely social creatures, but at the same time it is often ignored that there are many other animals, who are also exquisitely adapted to social learning and interaction. Comparative studies of social cognition in diverse species are still relatively new, and this comparison shows that learning from conspecifics is pervasive. I will briefly review examples of learning from others through copying, and learning about others, for instance, how dominant they are and how reliable. This learning plays an important role in the construction and negotiation of complex social systems, whether in fish, in bees or in mammals. The cognitive abilities that underlie this type of social learning do not presuppose conscious awareness. Instead, the implicit processes that enable and regulate most social behaviour are automatically triggered by the presence of conspecifics. This applies to humans as much as to other social animals. However, there are also explicit forms of these processes, which do need conscious awareness and these are probably unique to humans. They are slow to develop and slow in their application.

2I will use the example of imitation and overimitation as well as mentalising to demonstrate the differences between implicit and explicit forms. The phenomenon of overimitation has been studied in 4-year olds and in adults and experiments demonstrate that people copy irrational actions “because this is the way we do it”. It can be argued that this process is crucial for building up human culture and group identity. Interestingly, overimitation is not found in chimpanzees. As regards the implicit form of mentalising, the ability to track the intention of others to predict what they are going to do next is present in many species and can also be observed in very young human infants. In contrast, the explicit form of mental state attribution, which involves justification of the behaviour that is explained and predicted, is only found in humans after the age of four. Thus, human beings do not only track others’ mental states unconsciously, but they can use mentalising to manipulate others. Humans excel in explicit social abilities, and do not necessarily use them to achieve pro-social goals. Instead they are often used selfishly, as in Machiavellianism. Instead, pro-social ends are often achieved with the automatic forms of imitation and alignment. This is demonstrated in the chameleon effect and in experiments that employ subtle imitation with surprising effects of increased altruism.

Understanding the symptoms of autism

3Autism is a neuro-developmental disorder affecting about 1% of the population. It starts before birth and has its effects on the brain and mind throughout life. Autism is defined by behaviour and is usually recognised in early childhood. Autism comes in many degrees of severity and there is a whole autism spectrum from mild to severe. Although with development and with good education and support, the behavioural problems can improve, people with autism at all stages of their lives have highly characteristic impairments of social interaction and communication. They cannot engage in true reciprocal interaction. This makes it difficult for them to build relationships and keep friends. Typically they fail to understand very common social behaviour such as teasing, lying, persuading or joking. This has been explained by a failure of mentalising. Recent research has suggested that it is only the spontaneous ability to attribute mental states, which is affected, but not explicit form of mentalising, which involves attributing mental states off-line. The former seems to be missing in autism, while the latter can be acquired. Able individuals with autism are impaired in spontaneous mentalising, but they are not necessarily impaired in explicit mentalising.

4Besides severe and characteristic impairment of social interaction and communication there are other features of cognition, which characterize autism. They result on the one hand in cognitive disabilities, and on the other hand, in superior cognitive abilities. Different theories have addressed this uneven pattern. One theory suggests that a processing style with attentional focus on detail can explain both cognitive strengths and weaknesses in autism. I will present some evidence for this theory. It has the advantage of also addressing the presence of superior talent. Such talent is found in at least 10% and possibly in as many 30% of autistic individuals. I will suggest that a constellation of three factors in autism is conducive to the development of superior talents. First, lack of spontaneous mentalising frees the individual from conventional thought and standard practice of skills. Second, absence of strong executive control allows the attainment of ‘flow’ in the unconscious perceptual-motor systems. Third, detail focused attention is conducive to novel segmentation of perceptual input. Together these factors may explain talent in such diverse but typical areas as calendar classification, musical performance and artistic productions.

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Référence papier

Cours et travaux du Collège de France. Annuaire 111e année, Collège de France, Paris, avril 2012, p. 882-883. ISBN 978-2-7226-0156-7

Référence électronique

Uta Frith, « Social Cognitive Neuroscience: Part 1 », L’annuaire du Collège de France [En ligne], 111 | 2012, mis en ligne le 22 novembre 2013, consulté le 23 avril 2018. URL :

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Uta Frith

Professeur au College University, Londres (Royaume-Uni). Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience

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Collège de France

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