Animate, inanimate, and social: How the brain categorizes information

For our brain, animate and inanimate objects belong to different categories and any information about them is stored and processed by different networks. A study by Raffaella Rumiati from SISSA, Andrea Carnaghi from the University of Trieste, and others shows that there is also another category that is functionally distinct from the others, namely, the category of “social” groups. The study has just been published in the scientific journal Cognitive Neuroscience.

It was research in the field of neuropsychology that revealed a functional distinction between some “macro-categories.” “In neuropsychology we look for ‘double dissociation,” explains Rumiati. “For example, we might observe some patients who have a cognitive impairment in recognising animate objects but have preserved the ability to recognise inanimate objects. However, to be able to say that the two functions are separate, we also need to find patients who exhibit the reverse problem, that is, who have trouble recognising inanimate objects but still have good cognitive capabilities as regards animate objects.”

Rumiati and co-workers applied this method to the recognition of social groups. “The concept of “social” category is crucially important for humans in evolutionary terms, and for this reason it’s reasonable to think that specific, ad hoc circuits exist in the brain that ensure efficiency and speed in recognition.” Rumiati and Carnaghi selected a number of patients with dementia and subjected them to tests assessing the selectivity of their impairments. “We were looking for patients with trouble recognising inanimate objects only, or animate objects only, or social groups only, so as to demonstrate the double dissociation of these functions.” As a first step, Rumiati and Carnaghi checked the reliability of the literature findings on the double dissociation between animate and inanimate categories. “Classic studies tended to use pictures as cues, whereas we used words. The fact that we replicated previous findings demonstrates the soundness of the theoretical framework.”

The main result, however, was to find a double dissociation between social groups and both animate and inanimate objects. “This means that social groups form a ‘special’ category in our brain,” explains Rumiati. “We are equipped with cognitive mechanisms devoted to this type of cue because the ability to recognise, for example, the “mafia man,” the “criminal” or the ‘policeman’ can save our lives.”

“This study,” explains Carnaghi, “has an important implication. It shows that it makes sense to apply the quantitative methods used in neuroscience even to the social sciences, and in particular to studies investigating how stereotypes and prejudices are formed. Thanks to this study we now know that a stereotype relating to people is processed by the brain in a different manner from a stereotype concerning an inanimate object or an animal.”

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Study links intimate partner violence, risk of HIV

Researchers from The Miriam Hospital and the University of Rochester have found a definitive link between violence among intimate partners and an increased risk of HIV infection. The study is online in the journal Women & Health.

Sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV, are an important public health problem for women in the U.S. Each year, 27 percent of new HIV infections are in women, and heterosexual transmission accounts for 83 percent of those infections. A recent national study attributed 12 percent of HIV/AIDS infections among women to relationships involving intimate partner violence (IPV).

Past studies have linked male-perpetrated intimate partner violence (IPV) with sexual risk behaviors, including an increase in the number of sexual partners, trading money or drugs for sex, and inconsistent use of condoms. While researchers agree that IPV affects sexual risk among women, little is known about the mechanisms by which IPV leads to risky sexual behavior.

That is the basis behind the newly published study co-authored by Theresa Senn, Ph.D., senior research scientist in the Centers for Behavioral and Preventive Medicine at The Miriam Hospital. Senn says, “The association between partner violence and lower rates of condom use has been studied by other researchers, but few have investigated why this association exists. Researchers and clinicians have assumed that women in violent relationships fear asking their partners to use a condom, but only a handful of studies have documented that this is actually the case.” She adds that those studies were conducted with adolescents, where other factors may be at play. This study, however, focused on adult women.

As part of a randomized controlled trial for the study, participants were recruited from an upstate New York public clinic that treats sexually transmitted diseases. Those participants completed a computerized questionnaire that asked about risky sexual behavior, intimate relationships, and related covariates and confounding variables.

Based on the reports from the participants, Senn says, “Our findings suggest that women involved in violent relationships fear that their partner might respond with violence if asked to use a condom, which in turn, leads to less condom use for these women.”

She adds, “Protecting themselves from unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections, including HIV, is not as easy as just telling their partner to wear a condom. The potential consequences of asking their partner to wear a condom are more immediate and potentially more severe than an unintended pregnancy or STI,” Senn says.

Specific findings from the study indicate that 17 percent of the sample reported IPV in the past three months. Recent IPV was associated with fear of violent consequences to requests for condom use; this fear, in turn, was associated with inconsistent condom use. Women who reported IPV also reported greater difficulties in negotiating safer sex behaviors with their abusers. For women in violent relationships, fear of violent consequences appeared to hinder women’s ability to protect themselves against HIV infection.

As a result of the findings, Senn says that health care providers involved in HIV prevention and sexual risk reduction interventions need to address IPV and, more specifically, the fear of IPV when negotiating safer sex as part of their services for providing more comprehensive care to women.

Senn concludes, “For women in violent relationships, counseling to use a condom and training in condom assertiveness skills are unlikely to increase condom usage. Women in violent relationships may need additional counseling about healthy relationships, and assistance developing a safety plan. Further, we may need to develop interventions for couples or for men who are violent.”

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Higher status than one’s partner makes both men, women vulnerable to intimate partner violence

Having a higher income or education than your partner could be risky, as a higher socio-economic status than one’s partner increases the chance of psychological violence and abuse. This applies to both men and women. “Whenever power is unevenly allocated in a relationship the chance of physical and psychological abuse increases. And the abused partner is the one with the highest status,” says a sociologist.