Date published: 5/4/2016

My research seeks to better understand the neural basis of how we perceive, shape, and are shaped by our social world.

Carolyn Parkinson

One of the most distinctive aspects of humans as a species is our tendency to form complex social networks made up of intense, non-reproductive bonds with non-kin. The demands associated with creating and navigating our complicated social world are thought to have comprised a driving force in human brain evolution. Yet, research on social perception and cognition in individual brains has progressed largely independently from research on the social networks in which we’re all embedded. My research combines theory and methods from cognitive neuroscience, psychology, and social network analysis to bridge this gap in understanding.

Social Networks and Human Cognition

Recently, we found that our brains automatically activate information about the social network positions of familiar individuals when we encounter them, such as how many “degrees away” from us they are in terms of social ties and how well-connected they are. In other words, merely seeing someone we know activates information about how that individual is connected to oneself and others in our shared network. This suggests that information about patterns of relationships, including relationships between third parties, is important enough to social interaction for it to “come for free” whenever we see someone we know. We are currently testing how exactly characteristics of our own and others’ social network positions inform cognition and behavior during social interactions.

We have also recently found that individuals who are closer to one another in their social networks process the world more similarly. Consistent with the adage that “birds of a feather flock together,” distance in a real-world social network predicts similarity of neural responses to naturalistic stimuli (e.g., movies), which provide an implicit marker of cognitive, affective, and attentional processes as they unfold. This suggests that homophily–i.e., the tendency to befriend similar others–may extend beyond relatively coarse variables, such as demographics, to the ways in which we attend to, process, and interpret, the world around us.

Psychological Distance

A complementary line of research concerns how we encode social, spatial, and temporal distances from our current first-hand experience. We have found evidence that a brain region within the inferior parietal cortex signals distance from the self across domains (social ties, space, time), such that “close” psychological distances are signified by one pattern of brain activity, and “far” psychological distances are signaled by a distinct neural pattern. Thus, when we speak of “close friends” and “distant relatives,” and of events in the “near future” or “distant past,” these spatial metaphors may not be mere linguistic flourish, but rather, may be symptomatic of how the brain itself is organized.

I’m originally from Cambridge, Ontario and received a B.Sc. in Psychology from McGill University in Montreal, Quebec. Before moving to the U.S. for graduate school, I spent a year living in Beijing, China doing cross-cultural research at Peking University. I received my Ph.D. in Cognitive Neuroscience from Dartmouth College, and joined the Department of Psychology at UCLA in March, 2016.