New ideas in the cognition of social interaction - November 19th 2013


Collège de France

Salle du Rez-de-Chaussée
3, rue d'Ulm
75231 Paris Cedex 05

Organized by A-C Bachoud-Levi, L. Cleret de Langavant, C. Jacquemot.

Admission: Free of charge but registration required (email to


The confirmed speakers are:
Dr Bahador Bahrami (UCL), Dr Marine Buon (UCL), Pr Beatrice de Gelder (TU), Dr Iroise Dumontheil (BBK), Pr Günter Knoblich (CEU), Pr Natalie Sebanz (CEU), and Dr Giorgia Silani (SISSA).



9-9.20: welcome

9.20-10.10: Giorgia Silani: Understanding others: evidence from clinical and normal population studies

10.10-11.00: Iroise Dumontheil: Development of the neural and behavioural correlates of social interaction during adolescence

11.00-11.20: coffee & tea break

11.20-12.10: Bahador Bahrami: A social interpretation of metacognition

12.10-13.00: Marine Buon: Why (and how) should we study the role of empathic resources, theory of mind and executive control resources to understand moral cognition?

13.00-14.30: lunch

14.30-15.20: Natalie Sebanz: Joint Action Planning

15.20-16.10: Günther Knoblich: Coordination mechanisms in joint action

16.10-16.30: coffee & tea break

16.30-17.20: Beatrice de Gelder: Interacting bodies




Understanding others: evidence from clinical and normal population studies

Giorgia Silani (SISSA, Trieste)

Empathy, the ability to understand and share the feelings of another person, a major component of what has been termed “social intelligence,” is one of the crucial elements of successful human interactions. In the past few years, social neuroscience has started to shed light on the neural mechanisms underlying empathic brain responses in the normal and pathological populations, by defining the neuronal networks beyond the cognitive and affective processes. In this talk I will give an overview of the state of the art of the brain research on empathy, by focusing on two main aspects: 1) the behavioral and neural mechanisms underlying empathic response and its modulation, 2) the proximal causes beyond a failure in empathic responses for pathology such as sociopathy, autism and alexithymia, conditions observed early in life and associated with severe deficits in social competence and understanding of other people’s mental and emotional states. In the attempt to start a challenging and productive discussion, I plan to present both neuroimaging and observational studies that have addressed the aforementioned topics. The ultimate goal is to bring a significant contribution to our understanding of intersubjectivity, i.e., the ability to understand the mental states of others.


Joint Action Planning

Natalie Sebanz, Cognitive Science Department, CEU Budapest 

Acting together often requires including others in one's planning. How can this be achieved? I will give an overview of behavioural and EEG studies showing that people form task representations that specify not only their own part, but also aspects of their partner’s task. I will then discuss recent findings suggesting that people also form joint task representations that specify relations between their actions and an event. This kind of planning is particularly useful because it allows groups of people to coordinate their actions and to imitate other groups.


Coordination mechanisms in joint action

Günther Knoblich, Cognitive Science Department, CEU Budapest

Humans perform many kinds of joint actions including dancing, playing music together, and carrying boxes while moving house. All of these joint actions require that two or more people coordinate their individual actions to achieve joint effects. I will present an overview of coordination mechanisms that have been identified in experimental studies on joint action so far. These mechanisms will include action simulation and action monitoring, role distribution, speeding, and entrainment. I will conclude with the observation that some coordination mechanisms are domain general whereas others are highly domain specific and discuss the advantages and disadvantages of both types of mechanisms for effective joint action.


A social interpretation of metacognition

Bahador Bahrami, Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, University College of London

A long history of research is dedicated to how decision, reaction time and confidence are connected to one another in the context of perceptual/motor tasks. More recently, these ideas have been extended to economic decision making. I will discuss the possibility that confidence in a decision is not just a consequence of perceptual evidence and economic gain/loss but in fact a means for social interaction among decision making agents. The fact that we often resolve disagreements by comparing how confident we are in our opinions demonstrates this point clearly. In my talk I will explore the social nature of decision confidence and discuss a few empirical and theoretical approaches we have taken to understand the cognitive and computational basis of collective decision making.  


Development of the neural and behavioural correlates of social interaction during adolescence

Iroise Dumontheil (Department of Psychological Sciences, Birkbeck, University of London, Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, University College London)

Adolescence is usually defined as the period of physical, psychological and social transition between childhood and adulthood. During adolescence individuals become increasingly independent and responsible for their own actions and are increasingly faced with situations that test the limits of their ability to regulate their behaviour. Adolescents have been shown to be particularly susceptible to peer influence, suggesting that social cognition maturation may be critical in accounting for adolescents’ behaviour. Several developmental functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) studies have demonstrated that regions within the “social brain,” the network of brain regions involved in understanding other people, develop both structurally and functionally during the period of adolescence, with consistent decreases in medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC) activation with age. In parallel, investigation of executive functions development have shown changes in lateral PFC function during adolescence in a variety of tasks requiring inhibitory control or working memory tasks. Most previous developmental fMRI studies of social cognition have employed tasks that involve explicitly thinking about other people’s mental states (theory of mind or mentalising). However, everyday life may require the use of theory of mind in a much more implicit and online way, as well as in in combination with executive functions processes of goals management and action selection. I will present research which, by employing paradigms that combine executive function and social cognition demands, investigates the development of the neural and behavioural correlates of social interactions during adolescence.


Why (and how) should we study the role of empathic resources, theory of mind and executive control resources to understand moral cognition?

Marine Buon (Developmental Risk and Resilience Unit, University College of London)

Findings in the field of experimental psychology and cognitive neuroscience have shed a new light on our understanding of the psychological and biological bases of morality. In this paper, I will first review experimental results from adult’s studies and show that Theory of Mind capacities (ToM), Executive Control resources (EC) and Empathic processes (E)  are clearly associated with mature moral judgment abilities. Based on these recent findings, I will present an original model of moral judgment abilities in which ToM abilities, EC resources and E processes have a critical role. Then I will compare this model's predictions with insights arising from clinical populations (e.g., individual with autism and psychopathy), children presenting an atypical moral development (e.g., children with conduct disorder) and typically developing children.  These comparisons will allow me to propose different conceptual and methodological improvements that are required 1) to validate current models of moral cognition in a more comprehensive way and 2) to draw a more complete picture of the cognitive processes underlying moral cognition that includes both moral judgment and moral behavior.


Empathy does not need company - the influence of group size and trait empathy on neural and behavioral patterns when witnessing an emergency

Beatrice de Gelder1,2,3  & Ruud Hortensius1 

1 Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience Laboratory, Tilburg University, Tilburg, the Netherlands 
Department of Psychology and Neuroscience, Maastricht University, Maastricht, the Netherlands  
Brain and Emotion Laboratory Leuven, Department of Neurosciences, Leuven University, Leuven, Belgium


Recently, we have described several novel ways to capture the reality of emotions and social interactions (de Gelder & Hortensius, in press). As a next step, we extended the scope from the study of the perception of facial and bodily expressions in isolation to that of a social emotional situation in the context of a group. In the present talk several recent studies on the influence of group size and trait empathy on empathic-driven behavior when one is confronted with an emergency will discussed. In these   studies we focussed on automatic preparation for action as an initial measure of empathy (e.g., helping behavior). First, fMRI was used to clarify the neurofunctional basis of the influence of group size when witnessing an emergency. Second, a cued-reaction time task was used to map the effect of trait empathy on action preparation when one is confronted with an emergency. Lastly, in an attempt to directly map the neural consequences in terms of motor cortical excitability levels, we analyzed previous acquired single-pulse transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) data. Taken together, the results show negative effects of group size already at a lower-level process, i.e.,  automatic preparation for action, and highlight the possibility to investigate the neurofunctional basis of the perception of and emotional consequences of complex everyday situations.