My research focuses on the neural organization of social knowledge – how our brains make sense of other people's thoughts, feelings, traits, situations, actions, and relationships. I try to understand how the mind distills the enormous complexity of the social world down to its essential ingredients, and how it uses these ingredients to make useful predictions about others. To this end, I use fMRI to examine patterns of neural activity elicited by thinking about other people with various traits and mental states, or in different situations or relationships, or performing different actions. With multivariate pattern analysis and feature-space encoding models, I try to determine which theoretical dimensions or groupings best account for the corresponding neural representations.
To complement the fine-grained research I do in the lab with fMRI, I also engage in a variety of web research. Online research allows me to connect directly with much larger and more representative groups of participants than those i can practically involve in my neuroimaging research. It also allows me to study real world behavior by programmatically accessing data already existing on the web (a process known as web scraping). In this vein, I recently launched mysocialbrain.org, a platform for online social cognition research. This platform seeks novel insights through techniques including large-scale individual differences research, live cognitive modelling, adaptive design optimization, and the inclusion of existing application programmming interfaces (APIs) in research. Many of my informal web research projects are featured on my blog.
In addition to my main line of research in social cognition, I also moonlight as a wine researcher. I have a long-standing interest in wine, in large part due to the fact that my parents are both wine microbiologists. I have collaborated with them in their efforts to develop chemometric approaches to microbial identification by providing quantitative analytic support. The techniques we have developed will allow winemakers to more rapidly and inexpensively understand the microbial populations in grapes coming in from the field or juice undergoing fermentation. I also integrate my interests in wine and web research by using text analysis of online tasting notes to understand how people use wine descriptors.
An early focus of my research was social working memory. Working memory is ability to hold information "in mind" such as an image or phone number, potentially in the face of interference. While well studied in the cognitive domain, until recently little research had linked working memory and social cognition. My research on social working memory focused on efficiency, a broad theme in my work. Our findings suggest that social information may be easier to hold in mind, at least partially due to chunking or compression of social knowledge into efficient representations. I am still broadly interested in the question of how the brain implements efficient solutions to challenging computational problems in the social domain.
© 2015 Mark Allen Thornton. All rights reserved.