Universiteit Leiden

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The social brain in middle childhood

A neurobiological perspective on individual differences in social competence

Mara van der Meulen
10 December 2019


The social relationships we form with other individuals are a fundamental part of human development. In order to establish these relationships it is of key importance for children to develop social competence (e.g. the ability to fulfill both others’ and own needs in a social context). The main goal of this thesis was to understand individual differences in social competence in middle childhood, by employing a combination of behavioral, neuroimaging and behavioral genetic approaches. Findings demonstrated that adults and children display social competence by showing helping behavior as a response to observed social exclusion. Additionally, in both adults and children social competence was associated with an integrated set of brain regions involved in socio-cognitive and affective processing, indicating that the neural architecture underlying social competence is already well established in middle childhood. Results on heritability of social competence indicate that individual differences in prosocial tendencies and brain structure might be partly influenced by genetic factors, but that neural and behavioral responses in a specific social context are largely shaped by an individual’s experiences in the (social) environment. This thesis highlights middle childhood as a possible window of opportunity for increasing social competence through training or intervention.

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