Apr 2023

The neural basis of social intelligence in humans and other animals

Speaker: Dr Jess Taubert

27th April 2023

Abstract: The overarching goal of my research is to understand how we recognise different visual objects in the environment, with a specific focus on the recognition of socially relevant signals. Our remarkable ability to “read the room” is a form of social intelligence that emerges during infancy and contributes to our social wellbeing, yet its neural basis is only partially understood. How do know when a stranger is looking directly at us from across the street? How do we track changes in someone’s mood during a conversation (and can we do this efficiently via zoom)? How do we (can we) ignore social cues during criminal proceedings? To address these questions and others, I combine psychophysics with state-of-the-art neuroscientific methods (including whole brain functional imaging, single-cell recordings and inactivation techniques) and I test multiple species, including humans and rhesus macaques. In this RoundTable discussion, I will describe recent empirical work investigating (1) the neural correlates of face pareidolia and other unusual faces, (2) the link between perception of naturalistic, spontaneous facial expressions and brain activity and (3) the difference between interaction and observation modes in the primate brain. This work sets the stage for future experiments that will help us understand how, as social primates, we are able to communicate and coordinate with other social agents.

Bio: Jess Taubert was awarded her PhD in Psychology from the University of Sydney in 2009. Her first postdoctoral position was in the laboratory of Lisa Parr (Emory University, USA) where she spent her days comparing the behavioral responses of chimpanzees and rhesus macaques and trying to understand how our closest living primate relatives recognize faces. In 2011, she accepted a fellowship to move to Belgium (KU Leuven) and record single unit responses in fMRI-defined regions of the macaque brain (supervised by Rufin Vogels, Wim Vanduffel, and Bruno Rossion). Later, Jess found her way back to the University of Sydney to work with David Alais and Frans Verstraten. During this time she drove investigations about temporal effects in perceptual judgements about faces (and wrote papers about the dangers of online dating platforms like Tinder). Then in 2016, Jess took a position as a senior research fellow in the laboratory of Brain and Cognition, headed by Leslie Ungerleider (NIMH, USA). At NIMH Jess studied the brain mechanisms underlying the detection of illusory faces in primates. In 2020 she was awarded the ARC Future Fellowship and moved to the University of Queensland in August 2021 where her lab is busy trying to understand the processes underlying human social intelligence and their dysfunction. Fun fact: Jess’ first experiments investigating face perception during her honours year, compared human behavior with the behavior of domestic chickens.

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