The Swiss Society for Neuroscience, July 15, 2008

Scientists in Switzerland and the UK have made valuable discoveries into how the human brain responds to faces, feels empathy for others, and represents the concept of the self. The researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which measures brain activity, to understand how the brain works in real time. The results, presented Sunday 13 July at FENS 2008, will be relevant in disorders of social functioning such as autism and low self-esteem.

“Facial expressions play a major role in non-verbal social communication among humans and other primates,” explains Professor Patrik Vuilleumier, based at the Laboratory of Neurology & Imaging of Cognition in Geneva, Switzerland. But the way the brain responds to facial expressions is influenced by each person’s ‘attachment style’ – the way they tend to respond to others during social interactions. There are three main types of attachment style – secure, anxious and avoidant. People with a secure attachment style tend to think their interactions with others are positive and trustful, while those with anxious attachment style may think others are hostile and tend to worry about being rejected. Those with avoidant attachment style prefer to distance themselves from others. The theory of attachment style was developed in the 1960s, but until now it’s not been clear how it relates to brain activity. “For the first time, our work has revealed differences in brain activity that may underlie these individual differences,” says Professor Vuilleumier.

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