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The typical and atypical development of the human social brain

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A central issue in human development is how regions of the cerebral cortex become specialized for specific perceptual, motor, and cognitive functions. I will compare and contrast three general viewpoints on human functional brain development: a maturational view (in which cognitive and behavioural change is attributed to the maturation of underlying brain regions), a skill-learning view (in which the brain changes with cognitive development are viewed as similar to those seen when adults acquire complex new skills), and “Interactive Specialisation”. The latter view hypothesises that the functional specialisation of some regions of the cortex becomes increasingly finely tuned during postnatal development through interactions between different cortical regions, between cortical and sub-cortical structures in the brain, and interactions between the baby and its social and physical environment.

As an example of the Interactive Specialization approach I will review studies from our laboratory and others on the emergence of the “social brain”, a cortical network that enables us adults to recognise the identity, actions and intentions of other humans. My review of studies of face processing, eye gaze perception and human voice perception in infants and children support the Interactive Specialisation perspective. In the final part of my talk I turn to the atypical development of the social brain, and discuss recent studies of babies at-risk for a later diagnosis of autism.

Johnson, M.H. (2001) Functional brain development in humans. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 2, 475-483.

Johnson, M.H. & de Haan, M. (2011) Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience, 3rd Edition. Wiley -Blackwell

This talk is part of the Social Psychology Seminar Series (SPSS) series.

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