Social Communication

Dr. David J. Koehn Psychologist Fort Myers, Florida

Dr. David Koehn is a psychologist practicing in Fort Myers, FL. Dr. Koehn specializes in the treatment of mental health problems and helps people to cope with their mental illnesses. As a psychologist, Dr. Koehn evaluates and treats patients through a variety of methods, most typically being psychotherapy or talk therapy.... more

Social Communication


Dr. David J. Koehn


Taken from various sources on the internet, here is a treatise on social communication. Social communication is the use of language in social contexts. It encompasses social interaction, social cognition, pragmatics, and language processing. Social communication skills include the ability to vary speech style, take the perspective of others, understand and appropriately use the rules for verbal and non-verbal communication, and use the structural aspects of language (e.g., vocabulary, syntax, and phonology) to accomplish these goals. Social communication, spoken language, and written language have an intricate relationship (see figure below). Social communication skills are needed for language expression and comprehension in both spoken and written modalities. Spoken and written language skills allow for effective communication in a variety of social contexts and for a variety of purposes.

Social communication behaviors such as eye contact, facial expressions, and body language are influenced by sociocultural and individual factors (Curenton & Justice, 2004; Inglebret, Jones, & Pavel, 2008). There is a wide range of acceptable norms within and across individuals, families, and cultures. 

Social Communication Disorder

Social communication disorder is characterized by difficulties with the use of verbal and nonverbal language for social purposes. Primary difficulties are in social interaction, social cognition, and pragmatics. Specific deficits are evident in the individual’s ability to:

  • communicate for social purposes in ways that are appropriate for the particular social context;
  • change communication to match the context or needs of the listener;
  • follow rules for conversation and storytelling;
  • understand nonliterate or ambiguous language; and
  • understand what is not explicitly stated.

This definition is consistent with the diagnostic criteria for Social (Pragmatic) Communication Disorder detailed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (DSM-5; American Psychiatric Association [APA], 2013).

Social communication disorder can result in far-reaching problems, including difficulty participating in social settings, developing peer relationships, achieving academic success, and performing successfully on the job.  

Social communication disorder may be a distinct diagnosis or may co-occur with other conditions, such as 

In the case of autism spectrum disorder (ASD), social communication problems are a defining feature, along with restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior. Therefore, social communication disorder cannot be diagnosed in conjunction with ASD. 

Importance of Social Communication

It’s no secret that human beings are social animals. The success of Twitter, Facebook, and other forms of social media have recently emphasized our human need for interaction. Despite social interaction being so essential to the human experience, it isn’t always easy. In fact, it takes almost every part of the human brain, arguably the most complex thing ever created, to work and play well with others.

The First Step in Social Interaction – Social Cues

The first step in social interaction is perceiving important social cues. We listen to what people say and how it is said, observe minute details of facial expression, pay keen attention to how we are touched, and wrinkle our noses in disgust if someone smells bad. Each of these functions relies on a unique region of the brain.

For example, the fusiform gyrus, located near the base of the brain, is particularly involved in seeing faces, and the right superior temporal sulcus on the side of the brain helps us notice where someone else is looking. Part of the occipital cortex is dedicated to observing other human bodies. An evolutionary ancient pathway connects the superior colliculus, which helps control basic visual information, and the amygdala, which regulates strong human emotions.

Our brains are also tuned into human voices. An entire neural network is devoted to language, which exists on the left side of the brain in over 90 percent of people. A similar network exists on the right side of the brain that deciphers prosody, the additional tones, and ways that people add layers of meaning to their spoken words.

The sense of touch relays information to the insula, which can evoke an emotional response. The sense of smell is very tightly linked with the limbic system, which manages emotional sensations and regulations. Almost every sense we have has unique wirings to emotion, especially when other people are involved.

The Second Step in Social Interaction - Filtering Information

The next basic step in social interaction is deciding whether a social signal really matters. Specific brain structures generate an initial emotional response to social stimuli. Should someone’s tone really impact us as much as it does? What does someone’s look really mean, and are we overreacting?

Deep inside the brain, the amygdala seems to be especially involved in selecting which of the myriad incoming social signals are the most important. One can think of the amygdala as attaching an incoming signal with an emotional value. People with damage to their amygdala have a harder time recognizing fearful faces, and they don’t watch the eyes of others in order to perceive emotions.

The insula is also important in assigning the emotional value of different stimuli, such as deciding when something is disgusting. This can be socially crucial, as the insula is what signals the inappropriateness of, say, chronic nose-picking in public. Lesions in this area of the brain will lead to a lack of concern about inappropriate situations. In the disease of frontotemporal dementia, for example, insular degeneration may underlie such behavior as not caring about personal hygiene.

A region known as the anterior cingulate cortex generates reactions in response to different situations. The anterior cingulate cortex is connected to many other parts of the brain and is the place where sensation is transformed into action. For example, if the insula judges that something is disgusting, the anterior cingulate cortex relays the information to parts of the brain that work together to say “yuck.” People with a stroke in this area may have profound apathy, even to the point of akinetic mutism, where someone lacks the motivation to even move or speak at all.

The orbitofrontal cortex at the bottom and front of the brain indicates when incoming social signals are rewarding. Studies have shown, for example, that these regions are very active in romantic love. This is particularly true of an area called the nucleus accumbens.

The Third Step in Social Interaction - The Role of Experience

Most of the structures we’ve discussed so far are “hardwired,” meaning that they are relatively ancient pathways and structures that can't easily be changed. However, the neocortex ("neo" means "new") is more adaptable. This new part of the brain is where our experiences allow us to change how we interact with other people.

Patterns of correct social behavior are held in the medial prefrontal cortex. This region doesn't fully mature until the early twenties, which allows us time to form our unique personality and choose how we respond to different social interactions. The ventrolateral prefrontal cortex may be involved with recognizing the consequences of breaking rules. This area may be less active in sociopathic individuals.

The Anatomy of Etiquette

Even if all processing of social information is done appropriately, it won’t matter much if we respond in an embarrassing or inappropriate way. It is critical in our day-to-day lives that we carefully restrict our behavior and choose the best way to behave. If this isn’t done correctly, conflict can arise. Marriages can disintegrate, business deals can collapse, and friendships can fail. Humans have uniquely complicated social interactions which are controlled predominantly by the prefrontal cortex. This can control and override more immediate responses, so that even when we are feeling angry or insulted, we may be able to respond gracefully.

The medial prefrontal cortex tells us what emotions we’re feeling. People with lesions in this area don't know how they feel. As a result, they also have a hard time regulating or controlling their emotions.  The lateral prefrontal cortex seems more involved with the ability to regulate the emotion that is signaled by the medial prefrontal cortex. This also helps us to adapt to new situations. For example, this is the area that allows us to overcome a prejudicial thought, even if we were raised in a biased household.

The Original Social Network

In a way, the brain mirrors our own society. Both we and our neurons exist in networks of communication. One neuron may directly share information with hundreds of others and indirectly communicate with billions within the body. By coordinating our hands and lips, this electric chatter within our own brains becomes the electronic blips of a cell phone signal or the warmer analog signal of face-to-face interaction. The communication between nerve cells becomes communication between human beings.

Humans are social beings, and it shouldn’t be surprising that there are specific groups of nerve cells in the brain that are directly influenced by social experiences. One important mechanism mediating these interactions is neuroplasticity, which involves the brain’s ability to modify connections between various groups of brain cells. In essence, the brain can rewire itself and adjust the degree to which certain regions communicate with each other. Neurogenesis, i.e., the ability of certain brain regions to generate new neurons, is another important mechanism involved in some forms of neuroplasticity. The pattern of connections that form between new brain cells and older cells is a powerful way that the brain can change in response to social and environmental experiences, and some evidence indicates that the new brain cells exert important regulatory actions over stress responses. The process of neuroplasticity is critical to all aspects of brain function, including those involving cognition, memory, emotions, and motivation

Brain Cells Rewire Depending on Social Experiences

“Social neuroscience” is a rapidly growing area of brain research that focuses on deciphering the mechanisms underlying interactions between interpersonal behavior and brain activity. Recently, the journal Nature Neuroscience published a series of review articles pertaining to social neuroscience. Some of the information described in this post is based on one of these review articles: “Social influences on neuroplasticity: stress and interventions to promote well-being” by Richard Davidson and Bruce McEwen. 

During the process of development, there are specific time periods (so-called “critical periods”) when exposure to certain stimuli is needed in order for normal brain function to develop. For example, if a child has a “lazy eye” and it isn’t discovered early in life, the unaffected eye becomes dominant and the “lazy” eye may not develop the ability to see adequately. If the condition is discovered early, then patching the good eye allows the “lazy” eye to develop better vision. The ability to correct this visual defect becomes more difficult with age as the time window closes on the critical period for visual development. In terms of social and emotional development in humans, the nature and timing of such “critical periods” hasn’t been clearly defined. However, there is evidence that interventions in very young children may be more effective in minimizing the long-term symptoms of certain disorders such as autism than intervening when a person is older. Determining the nature of critical periods that are relevant to specific forms of social and emotional development is an important area of current and future research.

Early childhood experiences can strongly influence a person’s long-term ability to interact with other people. Being exposed to highly stressful adverse events early in life can negatively impact how we handle stress and interact with others later in life. Genes play an important role in this adaptation, and some people inherit the ability to tolerate adverse circumstances better than others. Genes and environment are constantly interacting and shaping the brain’s ability to adjust. Interestingly, there is some evidence from research with squirrel monkeys that occasional mild stress in young animals has beneficial effects, increasing exploratory behaviors and independence as they mature. 

Evidence from other animal studies indicates that chronic significant stressors can decrease the connections in brain regions involved in memory and higher-order information processing, such as the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex. However, the same chronic stressors actually increase connectivity between cells in areas of the brain involved in emotion, such as the amygdala and orbitofrontal cortex. Some of these regions also change their overall size in response to chronic stressors.

Importantly, certain positive interventions can help re-establish normal connections among these various brain regions following exposure to stress. Physical activity, environmental enrichment, and decreasing stress levels can all lead to a reversal of stress-induced changes in brain connections. Once again, exercise proves to be beneficial to our mental health. Voluntary exercise is also an interesting example of a form of controlled stress that can result in positive effects on both body and brain function.

Certain psychotherapies, for example, cognitive behavior therapy, can help people with illnesses such as depression or anxiety disorders. These therapies likely influence brain connections through learning and enhanced attentional processing. Anti-depressant medications also have been shown to reverse stress-induced connectivity changes in the hippocampus.

There are also certain medications that more directly influence the brain’s ability to undergo neuroplasticity, and it is likely that new drugs will be developed that have specific effects on neuroplastic mechanisms. It is possible that therapies will be developed that specifically utilize neuroplasticity-altering medication during behavioral or psychotherapeutic sessions. Administering these medications concurrent with the therapy might enhance the effectiveness of the therapy in producing behavioral improvement. This is an area where much more research is needed, but early results with the drug D-cycloserine are encouraging.

Being able to modify neuroplastic changes in the brain and reverse abnormal patterns of connections has the potential to dramatically influence the ability to effectively treat persons with a variety of psychiatric illnesses. Such approaches may also be applicable to helping people whose brain wiring has been altered by addiction to various drugs.

Autism – A Deeper View

A recent study provides evidence that autism affects the functioning of virtually the entire brain, and is not limited to the brain areas involved with social interactions, communication behaviors, and reasoning abilities, as had been previously thought. The study, conducted by scientists in a research network supported by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), found that autism also affects a broad array of skills and abilities, including those involved with sensory perception, movement, and memory.

The findings, appearing in the August Child Neuropsychology, strongly suggest that autism is a disorder in which the various parts of the brain have difficulty working together to accomplish complex tasks.

The study was conducted by researchers in the Collaborative Program of Excellence in Autism (CPEA), a research network funded by two components of the NIH, the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders.

“These findings suggest that further understanding of autism will likely come not from the study of factors affecting one brain area or system, but from studying factors affecting many systems,” said the director of NICHD, Duane Alexander, M.D.

People with autism tend to display 3 characteristic behaviors, which are the basis of the diagnosis of autism, explained the study’s senior author, Nancy Minshew, M.D., Professor of Psychiatry and Neurology at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. These behaviors involve difficulty interacting socially, problems with verbal and non-verbal communications, and repetitive behaviors or narrow, obsessive interests. Traditionally, Dr. Minshew said, researchers studying autism have concentrated on these behavioral areas.

Within the last 20 years, however, researchers began studying other aspects of thinking and brain functioning in autism, discovering that people with autism have difficulty in many other areas, including balance, movement, memory, and visual perception skills.

In the current study, Dr. Minshew and her colleagues administered a comprehensive array of neuropsychological tests to a group of children with autism. The researchers tested 56 autistic children and compared their responses to those of 56 children who did not have autism. The children with autism were classified as having higher functioning autism — an I.Q. of 80 or above, and the ability to speak, read, and write. All of the children in the study ranged in age from 8 to 15 years. The purpose of the test array, Dr. Minshew said, was to determine whether there were any patterns in mental functioning unique to autism.

“We set out to find commonalities across a broad range of measures, so that we could make inferences about what’s going on in the brain,” Dr. Minshew said.

The researchers found that, across the entire series of tests, the children with autism performed as well as — and in some instances even better than — the other children on measures of basic functioning. Uniformly, however, they had trouble with complex tasks.

For example, regarding visual and spatial skills, the children with autism were very good at finding small objects in a cluttered visual field, on tasks like finding Waldo in the “Where’s Waldo” picture books series. However, when asked to perform a complex task, like telling the difference between the faces of similar looking people, they had great difficulty.

Although their memory for the detail in a story was phenomenal, the children with autism had great difficulty comprehending the story. Many were highly proficient at spelling and had a good command of grammar, but had difficulty understanding complex figures of speech, like idioms and metaphors.

“We see this with our patients,” Dr. Minshew said. “If you use an expression like ‘hop to it,’ a child with autism may literally hop.”

Other complex tasks were also difficult for them. The children with autism either had poor handwriting or wrote very slowly. Many had difficulty tying their shoes and using scissors.

“These findings show that you can’t compartmentalize autism under three basic areas,” Dr. Minshew said. “It’s much more complex than that.”

Dr. Minshew explained that the major implication of the finding is that when seeking to understand autism, researchers need to look for a cause or causes that affect multiple brain areas, rather than limiting their search to brain areas dealing with the three characteristic behaviors involving social interactions, communication, and repetitive behaviors or obsessive interests.

“Our paper strongly suggests that autism is not primarily a disorder of social interaction, but a global disorder affecting how the brain processes the information it receives — especially when the information becomes complicated.”

In previous research with an imaging technology known as functional magnetic resonance imaging or fMRI, Dr. Minshew and her coworkers determined that adults with autism have abnormalities in the neurological wiring through which brain areas communicate. In those studies, the researchers found that people with autism had difficulty performing certain complex tasks that involved brain areas working together. (This research is described in previous releases,, and

Dr. Minshew said that such abnormalities in brain circuitry provide the most likely explanation for why the children with autism in the current study have difficulty with complex tasks that require coordination among brain regions but do well on tasks that require only one region of the brain at a time.

The researchers undertook the current study as a follow up to an earlier study they did of adults with autism. The researchers studied children to determine if the features of autism were consistent throughout life, or changed as people with autism grow older. For the most part, the current study revealed that both adults and children with autism experience the same kinds of difficulties with complex tasks.

One difference is that adults with autism appear to score higher on tests involving sensory interpretation than do children with autism. Such tests would involve identifying a number traced on a fingertip, or identifying an object placed in one’s hand without looking at it. Dr. Minshew said that as people with autism grow older, they may have less sensory difficulty than they did as children.

Still, adults with autism fare much worse on tests of complex language and reasoning than do other adults. This gap in complex language and reasoning ability between the two groups is not as pronounced when children with autism are compared to other children. This is because children’s brains have not yet developed these skills, Dr. Minshew said. However, the gap widens with time. As typical children get older, they develop these higher-order language and reasoning skills while adolescents and adults with autism do not.

Summary: Socializing is Basically Communication

Communication is verbal and non-verbal. There is a lot going on in the brain when one is socializing with other people. You have to recognize faces, read expressions and feelings, listen to the words said, and also how they are said, etc.

The face reveals valuable information in social interactions. When you are looking at someone the fusiform face area (FFA) is active. The fusiform gyrus is involved in perception and face recognition. The FFA is involved in processing behaviorally relevant facial features and recognition of emotions through facial expressions. It has also been found that there is stronger activity in the FFA when one sees a familiar face or object.

The superior temporal sulcus is an area that is very important in many aspects of social cognition. One of which is detecting the movement of eyes and lips. The STS is activated in response to horizontal eye movement and the opening and closing of the mouth. It is also activated by the positioning of hands and feet. It is normal to use hands to express oneself in conversations or when someone is explaining something. Eye movement is really important in social interactions. It reveals the state of mind, focus, and intentions. The sclera (the white part of the eye-balls) in humans is significantly larger than other animals. That is why we are able to convey a lot of information with our eyes. Humans can easily communicate just with the eyes.

Amygdala’s function is primarily forming memories associated with emotional events. The amygdala gets sensory information directly from the various sensory systems that process the external world.

The research to this day suggests that the brain areas Wernicke’s, Broca’s, and the auditory cortex are responsible for language processing and speech. The Wernicke’s area is involved in comprehending language. The auditory cortex performs basic and higher functions in hearing. Broca’s area play an important role in speaking. Wernicke’s areas function is to comprehend what the speaker has said and interpreted language while the Broca’s area is ensuring that the speech is articulate. It ensures flowing speech.

Hope you found this synthesis on social communication insightful. In my clinical practice experiences, social communication is at the heart of many patients’ difficulties in adapting to their world.