Neuroscience and Socio-Emotional Aging
• Are there differences in the brain for cognitive versus socio-emotional functioning?
• What is the neural circuitry responsible for enhanced memory for emotional information?
• What are the neural underpinnings of the positivity effect found in older adults?
uring a family squabble, Shelby chooses to focus her attention on reducing the impact of the negative quarreling and on the positive side of things. In doing so, her composure is much better than that of her adult children Michael and Robin and her grandchild Bella. Shelby celebrates the fact that she can remain so calm in these situations compared to the rest of her family.
The finding that an older adult, like Shelby, can better regulate her emotions is very much corroborated in the socio-emotional literature on aging. What is equally impressive is that there is growing evidence of documenting such age differences from a neuroscience perspective. The emerging field of social neuroscience has taken advantage of advancements in technologies to investigate the neural underpinnings of social cognitive and emotional processing.
In the mainstream literature, for example, Lieberman, Gaunt, Gilbert, and Trope (2002) have outlined a social cognitive neuroscience approach to attributional inferences, or how people make causal judgments about why social situations occur. They have identified a social judgment process that involves a relatively automatic system in which we read cues in the environment quickly and easily
without deliberation in making social judgments. For example, if someone is staggering down the hallway, we may automatically assume the person is intoxicated without taking into consideration many other factors that might be involved. In other words, we automatically put the person into a preexisting social category. We base this judgment on easily activated, well-practiced categories of information, and we do this most prominently when the situation is ambiguous. Because of the ambiguity in a situation, we are more likely to interpret it automatically based on our past experiences and current goals instead of focusing on the current characteristics of the information (Lieberman et al., 2002). Of interest to this chapter is that these researchers have presented compelling evidence for the existence of this system in neuroanatomy. Areas such as the lateral temporal cortex, amygdala, and basal ganglia are often associated with automatic social cognition (Adolphs, 1999; Knutson, Adams, Fong, & Hommer, 2001).
These researchers also have identified another system that is a more deliberative form of social cognitive judgments, employing symbolic logic and reflective awareness. The neural basis of this system appears to reside in the prefrontal cortex, anterior cingulate, and hippocampus (Goel & Dolan, 2000; Lieberman et al., 2002). Interestingly, the amygdala and the basal ganglia are areas that show less deterioration in the aging brain, whereas the prefrontal cortex shows more severe deterioration. Furthermore, the basal ganglia and, more specifically, the amygdalae are linked to emotional processing, which appears to be relatively spared in the aging adult. Researchers suggest that whereas we observe decline in cognitive functioning in older adults, we do not observe the same in the experience of emotions. Older adults maintain emotional experience as well as processing emotional information well into older adulthood. Thus, the area of emotional processing has witnessed a proliferation in both theoretical conceptualizations and corresponding empirical work. We will examine this further in later chapters. For the purposes of this chapter, the neural
underpinnings of socio-emotional processing with increasing age will be the focus.