What is social cognition, theory of mind

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Social cognition is the ability to perceive, recognise and manipulate a social stimulus and then construct representations of relations between self and others, and then use these representations to conduct social behaviour (Adolphs, 2001).

There are many difference aspects of behaviour which are investigated to further our understanding of social cognition and human behaviours. Some of these are trust, empathy and anxiety.


Chemical aspect

Known roles (summary) in birthing and lactating

Role in social cognition - just touch upon this

Oxytocin receptors - more reading needed


Oxytocin is a mammalian hormone that also acts as a neurotransmitter. It was the first polypeptide hormone to be sequenced and synthesized (Du Vigneaud et al, 1953.) It is a nonapeptide made up of nine amino acids. The sequence is cysteine - tyrosine - isoleucine - glutamine - asparaginen - cysteine - proline - leucine - glycine. Its structure is very similar to that of vasopressin and therefore have very similar roles, which will be discussed later in the report.

Oxytocin is synthesised in the magnocellular cells of the paraventricular and supraoptic hypothalamic nuclei and released from the axonterminals in the neuronal lobe of the pituitary (NL) (Zelena & Jain 2009.) It is then projected to limbic sites, such as the hippocampus, amygdala, midbrain and hindbrain nuclei, and the nucleus accumbens - all regions that are implicated in social behaviour, emotions and reward. (Campbell 2008).

Oxytocin is best known for its roles in female reproduction, including sexual and maternal behaviours (Fahrbacher et al, 1985, Pederson et al, 1979.) It is released in large amounts during childbirth and breastfeeding (Wagner, C. L. 2009). However, recent research has investigated oxytocin's role in various

The next section of the report will focus on the review of this research.

A systematic review was conducted using the following key words (list keywords here check with Nick re: correct format). EMBASS and MedLine were used. This process produced insert number of articles found here potentially related articles. After a review of abstracts insert number of abstract suitable here were selected as being appropriate. Articles were also found using references from other journal articles.

Oxytocin mediates prosocial behaviour, anxiety and fear.

Oxytocin receptors are expressed by neurons in many parts of the brain and spinal cord, including the amygdala, ventromedial hypothalamus, septum, nucleus accumbens and brainstem.

Existing Research




Animal Studies

Animal studies have shown a strong support for the role of oxytocin in social behaviour.

Rosenblatt (1967) found virgin female rodents to be indifferent or have an aversion to pups. However, at the time of birth there is a dramatic shift in maternal behaviour towards other pups. Pederson and Pranj (1979) found by injecting oxytocin into the cerebral bentricles of a virgin rat produced nurturing behaviour towards pups within 2 hours.

Research has found that by blocking oxytocin antagonists blocks the onset of maternal behaviour in rats that have given birth (Leengoed et. Al 1987, cf. Ross & Young 2009).

Oxytocin receptors have been found in the nucleus accumbens in prairie voles have been found to be correlated with the display alloparental behaviour in both juvenile and virgin females. A higher density of oxytocin receptor have also been found in higher density in the nucleus accumben in female voles displaying alloparental behaviour than those not (Olazabal & Young 2006).

Olazabal & Young (2006) also found by administering an oxytocin antagonist into the nucleus accumben is able to block all expressions of maternal-like behaviour towards the pups in adult females.

Williams et al (1994) found oxytocin to effect pair bonding in adult voles, and an oxytocin antagonist to block mating-induced pair bond formation.

Some dopamine info needed here

A study on rats has found that a central injection of oxytocin enhances the time rats remembered another rat.

Research has also found there to be an effect of oxytocin on levels of stress-induced cortisol (Gimpl & Farenholz, 2001) suggesting oxytocin could possibly alleviate feelings of anxiety.

Animal researches in the effects of oxytocin have shown to have very obvious effects on aspects of social behaviour. Changes have been seen in maternal behaviour, both in mothers and virgin animals. Changes have also been seen in bonding behaviour and social recognition. Lim & Young (2006) found that oxytocin increases social recognition but also decreases social avoidance and aggression.


Born et al. (2002) found that when neuropeptides, including oxytocin, is administered intranasally they cross the blood-brain barrier and therefore making it a useful method to explore the effects of oxytocin on humans. With this more effective method of oxytocin administration there has been an explosion of research in the role of oxytocin in social behaviour, and its modulation of social cognition in both sexes (Ross & Young, 2009).


Bartz & Hollander (2006) have suggested that oxytocin may have a role in enhancing social and possibly ameliorate social deficits characterized in some disorders, including autism (Zak et al. 2007).

Oxytocin has been found to reduce social stress

Kirsch et al. (2005) found oxytocin to reduce anxiety, suggesting oxytocin could possibly be used in treatment for social phobia.


Trust in other people is a pre-requisite of social affiliation and social approach in humans (Heinrichs et al. 2008).

Research (Kosfeld et al. 2005) has shown that when human participants are administered with oxytocin levels of trust increase during games with real monetary stakes. Baumgartner (2008) found that when administered with oxytocin participants continued to have high levels of trust, even when betrayed by the opposition.

Carter (1998) found oxytocin to promote prosocial behaviour by inhibiting defensive behaviours. Further research into this could result in a positive outcome for people suffering mental illnesses.

Emotion recognition

Savaskan et al (2008) found oxytocin also increases recognition memory for neutral and angry faces. Di Simplico et al. (2009) have found possible differential effects of oxytocin on the processing of positive compared to negative facial expressions reported slowed reaction times during facial fear recognition and reduced misclassification of positive facial expressions.

Domes et al (2005) found that oxytocin improves the ability to infer the mental states of others from facial cues (pictures of the eye region of facial expressions).


Empathy is the capacity to share and understand the feelings of others (de Vignemonth & Singer 2006). There has been much research conducted in understanding empathy. As empathy is believed to be closely related to prosocial behaviour it has been suggested by Zak et al. (2007) that oxytocin would enhance the ability to empathize with others. However, Snozzi et al. (2008) have found there to be no activation of empathy related brain area theanterior insula, and thus oxytocin having no effect on the ability to emphasize with pain suffered by a romantically-linked partner.

Needs expanding



Goldman et al. (2008) found there to be a significant difference in plasma oxytocin levels polydipsic hyponatremic schizophrenic (???) patients. The research group also found oxytocin to be a good predictor of schizophrenic patient's ability to correctly identify facial emotions.

Needs expanding on


Autism belongs to a group of pervasive disorders, termed Autism Spectrum Disorder. The disorder is characterised by a specific pattern of abnormalities in communication, impairment in social cognition and repetitive behaviours. (Heinrich et al. 2009). Some behaviours displayed by Autistic individuals mimic those displayed by animals lacking oxytocin, and therefore it has been suggested that oxytocin may play a role in Autism (Carter 2007; Hammock & Young 2006)

Modahl et al. (1998) found lower plasma levels of oxytocin in children with Autism Spectrum Disorder. The same research group also found there to be a correlation between plasma levels of oxytocin and social functioning.

Hollander et al (2003) has found oxytocin to reduce repetitive behaviour in Autism Spectrum Disorder and Hollander et al. (2007) found emotional recognition to be improved in people with Autism related disorders.

Although there is growing evidence suggesting that oxytocin may help to modulate impaired behaviour in Autism Spectrum Disorders, more research is needed to clarify its role in this as other neuropeptides have been found to improve behaviour in Autism Spectrum Disorder.

Info on genetics??

There has been much research that has been conducted in looking at the role of oxytocin on repetitive and affiliative behaviours in Autism (Bartz & Hollander, 2008).

Social phobia

Social phobia, or social anxiety disorder is characterised with significant anxiety and discomfort related to a fear of being embarrassed, humiliated or scorned by others in social situations. Hoge et al. (2008) has found that the severity of social anxiety was associated with altered oxytocin levels in patients with social phobia.

Kessler et al. (1994) found social phobia to be the third most common psychiatric disorder. It is the most common anxiety disorder, however, currently it is only possible to treat less than 60% of patients suffering from social phobia.

Kirsch et al. (2005) and Domes et al. (2007) both found oxytocin to suppress fear-related activation of the amygdala in healthy subjects, suggesting oxytocin may have an effect in inhibiting anxiety in those suffering from social phobia.

Oxytocin has also been found to have a better central nervous control of stress and anxiety in social interactions (Heinrichs et al. 2003).

Borderline disorder

Borderline personality disorder is characterised by affective instability, anger, impulsivity and identity confusion. Disturbed interpersonal relationships - often marked by mental and/or physical abuse, as well as neglect - are thought to play a central role in the development of borderline personality disorder (Baartz & Hollander 2006).

Individuals with personality disorders have a profound fear of abandonment which is often marked by frequent arguments, repeated breakups and emotional volatility (Lieb et al. 2004). With the link between oxytocin and prosocial behaviour it has been suggested that oxytocin may play an important role in targeting the disordered attachment and mistrust associated with borderline personality disorder.

Although an initial study by Fries et al. (2005) showed there to be no difference between oxytocin levels of children brought up in an institutional setting (with reduced emotional and physical contact) to children being brought up by their parents, further research is needed on this.

OCD etc

Obsessive-compulsive disorder is a mental disorder characterized by intrusive thoughts that produce anxiety, by repetitive behaviours aimed at reducing anxiety, or by combination of such thoughts (obsessions) and behaviours (compulsions)

To add details:

There is a clear need to investigate the efficacy of oxytocin in changing socio-cognitive and socio-emotional functioning.


Inc. personality disorder

What is schizophrenia/schizotypal? Inc. symptoms etc and dysfunction of social cognition

Inc. section on paranoia

Anxiety and fear are key features of paranoid symptoms.


Inc. personality disorder

What is psychopathy/psychopathic traits? Inc. symptoms etc and dysfunction of social cognition


My research

Study 1

Online survey, include information as in protocol (i.e. questionnaires used, why, tasks etc.

Study 2

Summary of what study 2 will be

Study 3 - all of the potential studies

Summary of what study 3 could be. Include all those discussed.

Update on study 1

A quick summary of data collected.

Other notes: