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Aug. 9, 2022

The Social Brain with Drs. Xiaosi Gu & Daniela Schiller

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I talk with Drs. Xiaosi Gu and Daniela Schiller about The Social Brain app, which  is an exciting new app that gives users the opportunity to be part of cutting edge social neuroscience experiments. The app was developed to assess our social cognition and how that relatesto mental health. Today's podcast was a bit different than other podcasts in that my guests are going to ask you to participate in a cutting edge social neuroscience experiment. The App is available in both IOS and Android formats.

For Android



The Social Brain Appat the Apple App store on IOS











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Disclaimer: Unedited AI Transcription


Announcer (00:06):

You are connected and you are listening to specifically for seniors, the podcast, for those in the remember when generation today's podcast is available everywhere you listen to podcasts. And with video specifically for seniors, YouTube channel. Now here's your host, Dr. Larry bar

Larry (00:40):

Today's podcast on specifically FA seniors is going to be a little bit different from other podcasts we've had today. My guests are Dr. Xiaosi GU and Daniella Schiller who are going to ask you to be part of a cutting edge social neuroscience experiment on an app they've developed. Don't worry. There's no score. There's no names. Dr. GU is an associate professor of psychiatry and neuroscience and director of the center for computational psychiatry at the icon school of medicine at Mount Sinai. And is one of the foremost researchers in the area of computational psychiatry. Tell us a bit about yourself and exactly what computational psychiatry is.

Xiaosi (01:35):

Yeah, of course. Thank you for having me, Larry computational psychiatry is a really new field and the goal is to really make mental health symptoms and trackable with quantitative methods. So we all know that the brain is responsible for most aspects of what we do. And it turns out that we can now use mathematical tools to help us really quantify what the brand does, how the brand does, what it does. Right. And a very important function of the brand of course, is that it's kind of responsible for our mood, our wellbeing. And you know, this is a particular area that has sort of attracted a lot of attention lately with sort of, you know, the new scientific findings from a slightly older field called computational neuroscience. And now we're taking these tools to specifically help us understand what is mental health and how can we better improve, you know, mental health, intervention and treatment.

Larry (02:51):

And Dr. Daniella Schiller is a professor of psychiatry and neuroscience, also at the icon school of medicine. Daniella, tell us a bit about yourself and the work you do.

Daniela Schiller (03:05):

Thank you, Larry. It's great to be here. My lab works on effective neuroscience. That means we are studying the neural basis of emotions for example why we are afraid or how we respond to rewards and so forth, and also social cognition how do we interact with other people?

Larry (03:27):

So you've developed a couple of games, tell us about the games.

Daniela Schiller (03:34):

So in real life what we do is interact with other people. It's a very basic function that we do daily. And in fact most of human inventions are based on collaboration and interaction with other people. So it's really surprising that we know very little about how the brain is computing processing that information because when we interact, we have a lot of information in the lab typically to study social interactions. It doesn't really mimic everyday life because usually we would show images or describe people and ask people to evaluate them and then see how the brain is responding. There is a great need to make it more naturalistic mimic everyday life. And this is the first person of the games that we developed. For example, we develop what you call a social navigation game.

Daniela Schiller (04:32):

There, you meet fictional characters and you interact with them through a narrative. You're like the protagonist in a story, and it's like a choose your own adventure game and you interact with them. But we built a story such that we could very accurately compute information and see how the brain is tracking that information. And we describe it almost like a geometric model that has dimensions for example, how much power or hierarchy you have in that social environment and how close you are to different characters. So from this, we can build this geometric model and quantify the social relationships and then link it to social functioning.

Larry (05:18):

So you have any

Xiaosi (05:20):

Of course. So we also developed a game for this app called social controllability and in, in the app, it's called hardball. So it's a very specific type of approach to study social cognition that comes from the field of behavior economics, actually. So it turns out that behavioral economists have developed various tools involving, you know, usually under the disguise of monitoring exchange between two players and, and we can use kind of the numbers, right, for example, you know, dollar amount to track how the two people are interacting with each other. So this is really kind of the essence of this game. So it's a, it's a money based task, but of course the, the ultimate goal is not to study like money based decision making per se, right? It's really more about social interaction and just using these monetary exchange as a way to track the interaction.

Xiaosi (06:26):

The specific concept we're interested in is actually has to do with what Danielle just said. And specifically it's about social. And you can imagine that in many aspects of our social world you know, a big part, I think that influences a lot of our social decisions might be, you know, what do you think is fair and how you might use your decisions to influence other people, right. And I think this, this type of influence can in many ways make us feel good, right? Because it, it's kind of a sense of control and a sense of agency, so to speak. And when you lose that control, when you, you know, you very often can lead to mental health symptoms and we've already observed that, you know, across various disorders. Yeah. So that's kind of the gist of this second game.

Larry (07:25):

You also had a couple of surveys in there as well. What do they do?

Daniela Schiller (07:31):

Yeah, we use surveys that are standard in the field of mental health, for example about anxiety in general or depression, and some more specific about social functioning. And in this way we can characterize the people that's play the app and then link the way they self-report their own behavior and assessment with their behavior in the game. And that's how we, we gain information from the game behavior. And we can later on use it as a diagnostic and possibly treatment tool.

Xiaosi (08:08):

Yeah. Like, you know, we, like Danielle said, you know, I think that's, these are very conventional instruments to measure mental health. We don't want to maybe, you know, spoil it too much for your audience. <Laugh> try to balance, you know, both between the, sort of the scientific background, but as well as, you know, the novelty for everyone if you're interested in downloading it,

Larry (08:34):

The app is called quote, the social brain app close quote, excuse me. I tried to enter it as the social brain social brain. It doesn't get to your app. It has to be called the social brain app. What do you mean by a social brain?

Daniela Schiller (09:00):

Specifically when we talk about the social brain, we talk about the computations and the representations that the brain is doing for social information. You can think about social interaction is a very complicated problem. You have a lot of information you learn about other people. You have to remember, you need to make decisions. You need to decide whether to approach or avoid and so forth. So you can think about it as an information processing problem. So by examining what we call the social brand, we really focus on these processes of computations of social information.

Xiaosi (09:42):

Yeah. So actually the, you could even say that the whole brain is really social, right. Especially for humans because with moved way beyond the stage where we have to use most of our brand resources to you know, to hunt, to look for shelter for these very basic needs, but instead a modern human being today, when the moment that they were born, they're mostly dealing with, I would say social relationships really. And that's why I think that the fact that the brain, the human brain is so complex and is able to, you know, represent very like different types of social signals very, and learn these social processes very quickly kind of tells us that across sort of this, you know, evolution of biology that our brand has really adapted specifically for this purpose. Yeah, but of course, you know, it's, like I said, because it's most, it's the most complex function that humans have to deal with. Of course it still has to rely on like very basic functions. Like you, you have to be able to seize things or hear things, right. You have to remember people's names. You have to be able to pay attention to people when they're talking. So these basic processes are still very important cuz they serve as the, sort of the building blocks for complex social function

Larry (11:20):

Are humans, the only ones with a social brain.

Daniela Schiller (11:25):

Absolutely not. Yeah. We, what, you know social abilities are preserved across species and developed throughout evolution. But the way we define social can change, it's kind of a philosophical question. What, what is social and how do we approach it? So in animals, usually we talk about reproductive bones and hierarchy structure, see species that are more social than others. Like non-human primates are very social and they have very clear hierarchies and other species. So the social brain is something that is also being studied in animals that are not human.

Xiaosi (12:10):

Yeah, absolutely. That there lots of both anecdotal observation, right. You can call your dog, you know, also a social species as well, but also there's lots of scientific research on sort of the different social behaviors across different species. So many intelligent species do have very complex social functions as well. Mm-Hmm <affirmative>

Larry (12:35):

You touched on this slightly before most of this research is usually done in a laboratory, but you turn to an app that people now are familiar with why <affirmative>

Daniela Schiller (12:53):

Laboratory research is limited to the number of participants from your own environment that you invite to the lab that are able to participate in a study. And these are usually small samples, like, you know, 30 people, 40 people. And usually it's not representative because it's limited to location with the app. That really extends our reach to what we can truly say is a general population. It's not limited, it's not screened. And various people from all walks of life can download and assess. And that's heterogeneity research is extremely important for scientific interpretation and understanding of their results.

Xiaosi (13:33):

Mm-Hmm <affirmative> yeah, absolutely. I think studying behavior in the wild right. Is, is very important for you know, neuroscientists actually. And actually before we started this recording today, I just received some fresh analysis from my really proving the idea that you know, Danielle just mentioned that we are, we are definitely reaching a very interesting and much more diverse sample than we ever were able to do with the lab. Like for example actually we have a really good representation of seniors already. <Laugh>

Larry (14:11):


Xiaosi (14:13):

Yeah. Which we almost never have. Right. Like in a typical laboratory study, just because we typically have these, you know, young college or grad students in their twenties and thirties to participate that that's very very exciting for us. Yeah.

Larry (14:29):

I, I think part of it during these last couple of years, especially for seniors, we've all been in isolation. Some don't have anybody else living in the house with them which was one of the reasons I started the podcast just to have a place where seniors could listen to other people talking how has this social I isolation affected us mentally.

Daniela Schiller (15:04):

It is a wonderful initiative this podcast. And thank you for doing that. So we can think about social isolation almost like sensory deprivation, your brain needs sensory information to function. We live on it, right? We need light we need touch we need the right temperature. So if you don't see other people, you are deprived of very critical information. If you take the kind of the idea of, of navigation, you can think about social others as reference points compared to other people, you can assess your state. You can understand that you're in the same state, for example, like other people or how different you are. It really allows you to understand your own experience. And if with isolation you get lost kind of your mind kind of expands. And it's very hard to understand. So it, it is critical social relationships in everyday life.

Xiaosi (16:01):

Yeah. And I wanna really talk specifically about also COVID right in relation to today's topic, because I think we probably all still have very vivid memories of how initially, and even till now most of the focus on seniors is really about the direct infection and you know, the potential risk it'll bring to your health. I think it's very rarely talked about the, sort of the secondary harm, which is the, you know strict control, you know, in the later part of the pandemic and how many nursing homes actually absolutely refuse people to even visit. Right. Even, even with caution, like the almost refused to like take evidence in a way. So I have like very specific examples of that because we lost actually three you know, elderly people in the family the past two years. And it's not because of COVID per se, but instead their brain function quickly deteriorated after many month of no visitation.

Xiaosi (17:11):

And I mean, as a scientist, I know that we can't do like controlled experiment on that. Like it's very hard to prove whether it's really, or it's just because their brand has Bryan's course. And you know, of course, you know, they were in their nineties, all three of them were in their nineties. But I think that if I were to you know, make any recommendation for <laugh> you know families at least is to kind of re really recognize the importance of having social contact with seniors during this very important period, because the direct infection, disease related health problems are not the only problems we have to deal with. And there is now a delayed so-called mental health pandemic. Right. that is just kind of surfacing for various age groups, but, you know, particularly for seniors in the past two years. Yeah.

Larry (18:18):

Have there been getting back to your particular study, have there been similar studies in the past

Xiaosi (18:32):

Using the app or using social just, or look at social brain

Larry (18:37):

To look at social brain?

Daniela Schiller (18:40):

Yeah, the social brain field is rapidly growing field in the last say 10 or 15 years. It is root dramatically. There's a, there are several societies and conferences several times a year. So there are many studies that are investigating various aspects of social functioning, where we come and this particular app is in, focusing on tasks are very naturalistic and also proactive. You, you dynamically act and interact, and this is what we measure mm-hmm <affirmative>.

Xiaosi (19:17):

Yeah, I would say that most studies so far are focusing on like the basic building blocks, as I mentioned before, like, you know, processing other people's face, for example, or processing other people's voice. And they tend to, you know, really represent the more sensory and motor aspects of social interaction. But here we are really trying to model sort of this very dynamic nature of social relationships. Right. And they can change really from moment to moment.

Larry (19:51):

So it's more of a comprehensive study of total social interaction rather than specific portions of it.

Daniela Schiller (20:01):

Yeah. We're able to capture and quantify complex social behavior.

Larry (20:08):

What, what's your ultimate goal in treatment or in intervention with the data you're collecting?

Daniela Schiller (20:20):

I would say the ultimate goal is well understanding how social information processing is occurring. What we could do with that is develop treatment that are more personally tailored to individual participants. That would be one aspect. The other is to provide with individuals information that they could understand and analyze their own behavior and behave accordingly. So overall we would like to develop treatment and diagnostic tools that are currently missing

Xiaosi (20:58):

Mm-Hmm <affirmative>. Yeah. And we already saw that across, you know, different types of mental health conditions that we've studied so far, that they do show very different sort of patterns of deficits using these games. So the goal is to really expand that, right, like into a much more diverse as, as we mentioned a much more diverse sample with this app hopefully can guide more personalized treatment in the future.

Larry (21:33):

You don't collect any personal information from participants in this.

Daniela Schiller (21:38):

No, it's completely anonymous.

Larry (21:40):

Just some general demographic.

Daniela Schiller (21:44):

Yep. Gen general demographics and some self-report, but it is anonymous. We just link it to these reports without knowing who the person is or anything about that person.

Larry (21:55):

How can people participate?

Daniela Schiller (21:59):

Are you go to the app store, either Android or apple and you search for the social brand app, and then you will see this little icon of a human face or a human head on a blue background. You will also see that it is linked with Mount Sinai. This will lead you to participate in the games

Larry (22:24):

It's available, both Android and iPhone. Yes. An apple rather. I want to emphasize again and I'll write it down right. Under the screen, the social brain app is the name of VR app. Anything else we haven't covered about it?

Xiaosi (22:51):

Well, I think I just wanna say that again for the listening audience we would really encourage everyone to download and play our games. And, and I think that also, just to generally speaking, recognize the importance of social interaction for our mental health, you know, call your friends <laugh> and you know, get, go out to meet people, of course, in a safe way. And social interactions are such a big part of our life and is one of the most important rewards, right? Despite the fact that, of course, sometimes they might make us feel stressful, right? We all have <laugh> stressful in, you know relationships, but in most cases just engaging in social interactions itself can really help your brain and, you know, stay and help you stay mentally healthy. 

Daniela Schiller (23:57):

Yeah. also one thing I can add is that the reason this audience is very important to us is that we would like to understand social functioning throughout the lifespan. So we wanna focus on the entire age range and senior population are the most experienced, their undergoing significant changes, and that could really promote research and understanding.

Larry (24:25):

When do you anticipate your research being complete?

Daniela Schiller (24:32):

When the research is comprised of multiple studies different studies cover different aspects and altogether it, is it converges onto the broad picture? So anticipate we will proceed with that for many years now. But every few months we hope to release some piece of information that we understand and some piece of the puzzle

Larry (24:58):

Will you let us know so we can advise people who have participated from this conversation?

Xiaosi (25:07):


Larry (25:09):

Oh, great. This has been fun. It's been great. Thank you both for coming on.

Xiaosi (25:16):

Thank you, Larry.

Daniela Schiller (25:17):

Thank you for hosting us.

Larry (25:19):

Thank you.

Announcer (25:21):

If you found this podcast interesting, fun or helpful, tell your friends and family and click on the follow or subscribe button. We'll let you know when new episodes are available. You've been listening to specifically for seniors. We'll talk more next time. Stay connected.

Xiaosi GuProfile Photo

Xiaosi Gu

Neuroscientist / Mental health advocate / Professor

Dr. Xiaosi Gu is one of the foremost researchers in the nascent area of computational psychiatry. Her research examines the neural and computational mechanisms underlying human beliefs, decision making, and social interaction in both health and disease, through a synthesis of neuroscientific, cognitive, and behavioral approaches. Dr. Gu received her Ph.D. in Neuroscience at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai (ISMMS) and postdoctoral training in computational psychiatry at the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging, University College London. During her time in London, she founded the world’s first training course on computational psychiatry. Before re-joining Mount Sinai, Dr. Gu held faculty positions at the University of Texas, Dallas and UT Southwestern Medical Center. She has published widely in high impact journals and serves as a frequent reviewer for the NIH, NSF, the Wellcome Trust (UK), MRC (UK), DFG (Germany), and research agencies all over the world. Dr. Gu is also an Editor-in-Chief for the new journal Computational Psychiatry. Beyond her scientific work, Dr. Gu is an avid advocate for raising public awareness in mental health and increasing diversity in computational psychiatry research. She frequently speaks at public engagement events including a 2018 Tedx conference. In 2020, she also established the first list of computational psychiatry researchers of color which aims to increase speaker and candidate diversity for conferences and recruitments. She is currently an Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Neuroscience and the Founding Director of the Center for Computational Psychiatry at ISMMS.

Daniela SchillerProfile Photo

Daniela Schiller


Dr. Daniela Schiller is a Professor of Neuroscience and Psychiatry at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. Her research is focused on how the human brain dynamically tracks emotional experience. Schiller directs the laboratory of affective neuroscience (http://labs.neuroscience.mssm.edu/project/schiller-lab/). Her lab has delineated the neural computations of threat learning, how the brain modifies emotional memories using imagination, and the dynamic tracking of affective states and social relationships. Schiller’s work has been published in numerous scholarly journals, including Nature, Neuron, Nature Neuroscience, and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Schiller is a Fulbright Fellow and a Kavli Frontiers of Science Fellow, and has been the recipient of many awards, including the New York Academy of Sciences’ Blavatnik Award, and the Klingenstein-Simons Fellowship Award in the Neurosciences. Schiller is also two-time Moth StorySLAM winner. Her stories have been featured in NPR and The Moth Radio Hour. She is also the drummer of the Amygdaloids (https://www.amygdaloids.com) and Supersmall (https://supersmallmusic.com).