My research focuses on the neural organization of social knowledge – how our brains make sense of the mental states, traits, groups, and networks of other people. I try to understand how the mind distills the enormous complexity of the social world down to its essential – and useful – ingredients. To this end, I use fMRI to examine patterns of neural activity elicited by thinking about other people with various traits and mental states. With multivariate pattern analysis, I am able to discover the similarities and differences between the neural representations of particular traits and states and determine which theoretical dimensions or groupings best account for them.
To complement the fine-grained research I do in the lab with fMRI, I also engage in a variety of web research. Studying the web allows me to connect directly with much larger and more representative groups of participants than those we can practically involve in our 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 am a collaborator on a Google-supported study of online social persuasion and influence. I also recently launched mysocialbrain.org, a new platform for online social cognition 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. Recently, I have started to integrate my interests in wine and web research by using text analysis of online tasting notes to understand how people use wine descriptors. I hope to estimate how much of the variability in the perception of wine stems from different sources such as appellation, varietal, vintage, and winery.
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.