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Fear Recognition and the Neural Basis of Social Cognition



Recent developments in cognitive neuroscience and neurobiology emphasise the interface between our emotions, our feelings and our ability to interact appropriately in social situations. The neural basis of social cognition is subject to intensive research in both humans and non-human primates, research that is providing exciting, provocative and yet consistent findings. Centre stage is the role of efferent and afferent connectivity between the amygdala and neocortical brain regions, now believed to be critical for the processing of social information. Recent research suggests that a sub-cortical neural pathway, routed through the amygdala, may turn out to be a key player in the mystery of why humans are so prone to disorders of social cognition. This pathway responds to direct eye contact, one of many classes of potential threat. In humans, arousal evoked by this exquisitely social stimulus is modulated and controlled by a variety of specific cortical regions. Neural circuits that evolved for the purpose of fear detection in other's faces, an essentially threatening stimulus, are now associated with the acquisition of social skills and appropriate responsiveness in social encounters.