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Social Brain Project: Reading the brain and mind of people (Prof. Dr. Frank Van Overwalle)

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What do we do?

Gezocht: Proefpersonen voor Breinstudies

Tests on tablet or PC for testing social sequential cognition in patients

Who are we?

The brain brought to you: Breinwijzer



What do we do?

 "My friend is handsome" and "My mother is anxious" are judgments about people we know well, which often also are quite accurate. We use judgments about people to navigate through the social world. But what happens when we get information that goes against these social judgments? Are all judgments resistant to change and how can we investigate this? How are judgments about other people made in our brains? Where are the brain areas that make social judgments? How do we control our social behavior and the social context, and how do social interactions have an impact on us? These are some of the questions that this project tries to answer.

The project is supported by researchers specialized in social neuroscience who study the social brain. In social neuroscience, behavioral experiments and state-of-the art neuroimaging techniques like fMRI or non-invasive brain stimulation (TMS and tDCS) are used to explore which parts of our brains are active during social and cognitive processes. This tells us how we deal with other people, and the underlying mechanisms in our brains. For instance, what mechanisms ensure that we understand our own behavior and that of others in terms of their thoughts, intentions, interests, character traits.

Answers to these questions can provide information on a wide spectrum of topics such as mind reading (how people infer goals and desires by observing them), autism (the lack of understanding of others) and paranoia (seeing too many hidden motives in others). What are the potential effects of brain damage by an accident or a stroke, and what impact this has on the social functioning of the patient.

The most important research questions in this project currently are...

The role of the cerebellum in social cognition: How the little brain gets a bigger role

Although enormous progress has recently been made in understanding the importance of the brain in social cognition, the role of the cerebellum has been long ignored. However, recent studies and meta-analyses in our lab during the last 5 years show that the cerebellum plays a critical role in social cognition, especially when we have to infer the mental state of other persons, that is, when we “read” their minds. Recent neuroimaging studies in our lab demonstrated that the cerebellum plays a preferential role when identifying and predicting sequences of social actions, that involve mental state inferences of others. By building up knowledge about social action sequences, social interactions with others become more predictable and smooth, resulting in more enjoyable and effective contact. Recent studies in our lab revealed this sequencing function in understanding and predicting several mental states by others, such as their beliefs, traits and goals. 

The cerebellum is best known for its role in motor skills and especially in fine-tuning and automation of movement. Think of how you learn to ride a bike, and lie down slightly in a turn without falling. You learn this by doing, not through manuals or instructions. Identifying and automating the correct sequences (or chronological order) of movement or actions is crucial, and the cerebellum supports this process. That role of sequences is also critical in social behavior. Think of social interaction as a kind of dance, where people interact and can estimate what others are going to do or say in turn. Think of the way people need to understand each other in order to work together smoothly, and they do this partly by thinking ahead which steps (sequence!) the other will take. Research in our lab has confimred that humans identify sequences of others' behavior both consciously and unconsciously, and use these to make impressions about others, and that the cerebellum is crucially involved in this process.


Persons with cerebellar lesions and autism: Do they have deficiencies in social cognition?

Lesions in the cerebellum cause many cognitive-affective deficits, including deficits in social cognition. Recent studies in the context of this project suggest that patients with cerebellar lesions are impaired in tasks requiring social cognition. In this project, we want to understand these deficits further among people with autism. In autism, the volume and functioning of the cerebellum is often limited. The project attempts to gain more insight into social and affective difficulties of cerebellar and autistic patients.

For people with social disabilities, such as autism, our novel sequencing perspective on the cerebellum may help to better understand their difficulties and develop new therapies. A new therapy inspired by this sequencing idea was recently developed, and shows promising effects in young adults with autism.

Tests on tablet or PC for testing social sequential cognition in patients and neurotypical individuals

Recent research indicates that patients with cerebellar or autistic impairments may suffer from deficiencies in their capacities to detect and generate appropriate social action sequences. We have now developed and validated various tests that diagnose these social action sequence capacities:


Software requirements:


If you would like to use one of these tests, please contact

Who are we?

See a picture with some of our collaborators


Clinical Experimental Research (Prof. Dr. Natacha Deroost)

Clinical Experimental Research focuses on the experimental study of psychopathology. Our main research topics are cognitive dysfunction in neurodegeneration and affective disorders.

Implicit learning

We investigate the role of selective attention and attentional control in implicit learning processes as well as the representations (perceptual or motor) underlying implicit sequence learning. Another line of research focuses on the consolidation of implicit sequence knowledge. We also address the development of explicit knowledge during implicit sequence learning.

Cognition in Parkinson's disease: deficits in automaticity and control

In collaboration with Eric Kerckhofs of the Department of Neurological Rehabilitation

Our aim is to develop an integrative empirical model that predicts the development of cognitive decline in Parkinson's disease using a fine-grained analysis of cognition. More particularly, we focus on how disturbances in automaticity and control contribute to cognitive deterioration in Parkinson's disease. Our long-term goal is to identify evidence-based predictors for cognitive rehabilitation based on innovative compensation strategies and neurostimulation (tDCS).

Affective disorders: repetitive negative thought

We investigate how repetitive negative thought (RNT) and information processing contribute to affective symptoms. More specifically, we determine to what extent worrying and rumination are related to abnormalities in attentional control and memory.

Other Recent Projects