Arvid Guterstam’s research group Social Perception Lab
The overarching goal of Social Perception Lab's research is to understand how our brains shape the perception of other social agents. We are particularly interested in how low-level sensory mechanisms can be used to construct higher-order social models in the brain, and how these processes contribute to our ability to understand the mental content of others (theory of mind) and influence behavior. We are also interested in how these mechanisms are affected in certain neuropsychiatric conditions.
Imagine you are sitting in the passenger seat of your friend's car when you suddenly notice their attention is drawn to a notification on their phone just as the traffic light turns red. You instinctively shout, "Look up!" and your friend hits the brakes before speeding into the oncoming traffic. Your rapid perception of your friend’s attentional state possibly avoided a fatal crash.
Social perception of others’ attention
The brain’s ability to quickly read the attention of others is a fundamental skill that most of us take for granted in our daily lives. However, in some neuropsychiatric conditions, this ability can be selectively altered. The goal of Social Perception Lab’s research is to characterize the mechanisms by which the brain automatically links other individuals to objects in their attentional focus, study how they contribute to our theory-of-mind ability, and to investigate how these processes work in autistic individuals and whether they can be altered through cognitive training.
The perception of others’ attention has long been considered fundamental to social cognition. We need an internal model of others’ attention to reconstruct their intentions and thoughts. A traditional explanation in psychology is that we track others’ attention simply by tracking their gaze direction. However, in a series of studies, we have shown that something much more complex is happening: on a subconscious level, our brain represents the attention of others as a “beam” of motion flowing from a person toward the object in their attentional focus.
In Guterstam & Graziano (2020), we demonstrated that when people are briefly exposed to pictures of faces focusing on an object, they become slower at detecting subsequent motion in the direction from the face to the object, which can be explained by a known perceptual phenomenon called motion adaptation. In Guterstam et al (2020a), we further showed that the brain processes images of faces focusing on objects, and visual motion, in a similar manner. The results were specific to two brain areas: one specialized in visual motion (area MT+), and the other in social cognition (TPJ). In Guterstam et al (2020b), we showed that people’s cognitive judgments of others’ attention can be manipulated by introducing a subtle visual motion (so subtle that 99% were unaware of it) streaming from a person toward an object. These results together suggest that the brain encodes others’ attention as a ‘motion signal’ and that this signal aids social cognition.
The goals of Social Perception Lab’s research projects are to explore these and similar mechanisms where the brain uses low-level sensory mechanisms (such as visual motion) to construct higher-order social models of other people’s attention. We use a combination of behavioral methods, such as advanced motion capture technology and eye tracking, and brain imaging techniques (functional MRI).
For more information about current projects, news and lab members, visit Social perception lab
A. Guterstam, B. J. Bio, A. I. Wilterson, M. Graziano, Temporo-parietal cortex involved in modeling one’s own and others’ attention. eLife. 10, e63551 (2021).
A. Guterstam, A. I. Wilterson, D. Wachtell, M. S. A. Graziano, Other people’s gaze encoded as implied motion in the human brain. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 117, 13162–13167 (2020).
A. Guterstam, M. S. A. Graziano, Visual motion assists in social cognition. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 117, 32165–32168 (2020).
A. Guterstam, M. S. A. Graziano, Reply to Görner et al.: Encoding gaze as implied motion. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 117, 20377–20377 (2020).
A. Guterstam, M. S. A. Graziano, Implied motion as a possible mechanism for encoding other people’s attention. Progress in Neurobiology. 190, 101797 (2020).
A. Guterstam, H. H. Kean, T. W. Webb, F. S. Kean, M. S. A. Graziano, Implicit model of other people’s visual attention as an invisible, force-carrying beam projecting from the eyes. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 116, 328–333 (2019).