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Double inaugural speech: how social context influences processes in the brain

It’s not a regular occurrence at Leiden University: two professors giving their inaugural lecture on the same day. Berna Güroğlu and Ellen de Bruijn specialise in related disciplines: they both research the influence of social context on processes in the brain – Güroğlu in adolescents and De Bruijn in psychiatric patients. Inaugural lecture on 28 June.

Berna Güroğlu – The adolescent brain responds differently to different interaction partners

During adolescence, children gradually become adults. This is often associated with a lot of worry on the part of their parents. Some adolescents become grumpy and stubborn; others succumb to risky behaviour such as experimenting with sex and drugs. For many adolescents, it can be a confusing period in which they undergo dramatic changes, both physical and mental.

This confusion comes in part from a kind of ‘skewed growth’ in the adolescent brain. ‘The adolescent brain is sometimes compared with a car without brakes,’ says Berna Güroğlu, Professor of Neuroscience of Social Relations, in her inaugural lecture. ‘These years are characterised by rapid growth in the region of the brain that wants instant gratification and slow growth in the region that regulates control and planning.’ The control mechanism that is supposed to keep a check on excesses is not yet fully mature, therefore. 

Güroğlu researches the effect of friends on this process. She has shown in numerous studies over the last few years that this social context has a significant influence on adolescent behaviour. One study showed, for instance, that the reward system in adolescents has a stronger response to winning money than the reward system in adults. ‘We see the same when they win money for good friends – that adolescents show a stronger response than adults. But only with stable friendships, so when this has been their best friend for a number of years already,’ she says. Friends take on special meaning in adolescence. Whereas young children don’t distinguish between friends and non-friends when it comes to prosocial behaviour – giving something away or sharing something, for example – adolescents do. Güroğlu: ‘If we want to understand the development of the adolescent brain, therefore, we have to monitor the social context.’

Ellen de Bruijn - The smoke alarm in our brains: how do we detect mistakes?

Ellen de Bruijn, Professor of Neurocognitive Clinical Psychology, draws on an experience from her own adolescence: a skiing trip when she was 16. On day one, she shot off fearlessly down the slope... and ended up having a nasty fall. On day two, she stood trembling on her skis. Fear and mistakes are linked. If we are scared of making a mistake, we are more likely to actually make one. But at the same time, we learn from our mistakes. And in extreme cases, fear of making mistakes can paralyse us, for instance in people with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). 

How does the brain detect a mistake and how can we adapt our behaviour? Which processes in the brain play a role here? That is what De Bruijn investigates, primarily in patients with a mental disorder. ‘Compare detecting mistakes with a smoke alarm. A smoke alarm that is too sensitive will go off for no reason: that’s a patient with OCD, for instance. And a smoke alarm that isn’t sensitive enough will go off too late: that’s a patient with borderline personality disorder, for instance.’

As with Berna Güroğlu’s research, the social context plays a role here too. ‘We make mistakes when others are watching, or mistakes that have consequences for others. Then feelings of shame and responsibility suddenly rear their heads,’ De Bruijn explains. With many, if not all, psychiatric disorders, patients have problems with their social functioning. Surprisingly often, this includes aspects that can be linked to problems detecting mistakes. A patient with OCD, for example, who had to pick up every little thing that he saw on the cycle path because he was scared someone else would fall over it. ‘We still know very little about these social aspects of error detection because they have generally been ignored in research over the last few decades.’ Something that De Bruijn hopes to change.

Text: Merijn van Nuland & Marieke Epping 

Berna Güroğlu and Ellen de Bruijn will give their inaugural speeches on Friday 28 June. These will be held in the Academy Building at 16.00. Come and see this unique double inaugural speech (registration compulsory), or watch the livestream instead.

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