Evidence for social working memory from a parametric functional MRI study
Meghan L. Meyer, Robert P. Spunt, Elliot T. Berkman, Shelley E. Taylor, and Matthew D. Lieberman
PNAS February 7, 2012 vol. 109 no. 6 1883-1888
Keeping track of various amounts of social cognitive information, including people's mental states, traits, and relationships, is fundamental to navigating social interactions. However, to date, no research has examined which brain regions support variable amounts of social information processing (“social load”). We developed a social working memory paradigm to examine the brain networks sensitive to social load. Two networks showed linear increases in activation as a function of increasing social load: the medial frontoparietal regions implicated in social cognition and the lateral frontoparietal system implicated in nonsocial forms of working memory. Of these networks, only load-dependent medial frontoparietal activity was associated with individual differences in social cognitive ability (trait perspective-taking). Although past studies of nonsocial load have uniformly found medial frontoparietal activity decreases with increasing task demands, the current study demonstrates these regions do support increasing mental effort when such effort engages social cognition. Implications for the etiology of clinical disorders that implicate social functioning and potential interventions are discussed.