Center for Social Neuroscience


Psychology, the Center is directed by Tom Fikes. In its mission statement, the Center declares the intent to provide "funding and support to faculty, students, and visiting scholars in the Westmont community for the interdisciplinary exploration of social and neural processes that underlie psychological phenomenon. . . . Understanding the complexities of human behavior within the context of both social and biological realities will be important for the creation of a just, peaceful, and sustainable world."

In many respects, contemporary neuroscience has been largely individualistic, focusing on the nervous system as an entity completely distinct from social contexts. For many scholars, human choices—and moral assumptions—can be increasingly explained in neurological terms. Social neuroscience, however, contends for a larger vision of the human person, and that has considerable resonance for theological discussions. "One thing that makes the Center for Social Neuroscience unique," according to Tom, "is that the subject matter is not merely relevant to the community, but it is about community, and how overly individualistic and deterministic understandings of neuroscience prevent the development of rich, meaningful community."

Although just in its early phases, the Center has started to support some faculty and student research, and in time plans to sponsor guest lecturers, theological dialogues, and pratical applications. One project underway is using EEG methods to understand empathy and compassion, focusing on the "mirror neuron system" and our ability to pick up and amplify the feelings and intentions of others. Another involves respiratory sinus arrhythmia, the propensity for variability in heart rate to track with breathing. This project will give insights into how the body handles stress and how our nervous systems state facilitates social functioning and emotional self-regulation. A third project involves social neuroscience and leadership.