Behavioral and Brain Sciences

Target Article

Toward a second-person neuroscience   1

Leonhard Schilbacha1, Bert Timmermansa2, Vasudevi Reddya3, Alan Costalla4, Gary Bentea5, Tobias Schlichta6 and Kai Vogeleya7

a1 Department of Psychiatry, University Hospital of Cologne, 50924 Cologne, Germany.

a2 School of Psychology, King's College, University of Aberdeen, Aberdeen AB24 3FX, Scotland, United Kingdom.

a3 Department of Psychology, University of Portsmouth, King Henry Building, Portsmouth, Hampshire PO1 2DY, United Kingdom.

a4 Department of Psychology, University of Portsmouth, King Henry Building, Portsmouth, Hampshire PO1 2DY, United Kingdom.

a5 Department for Psychology, Social Psychology II – Communication and Media Psychology, University of Cologne, 50931 Cologne, Germany.

a6 Institute of Philosophy, Ruhr-University Bochum, 44780 Bochum, Germany.

a7 Institute of Neuroscience & Medicine, Cognitive Neuroscience (INM-3), Research Center Juelich, 52428 Juelich, Germany; and Department of Psychiatry, University Hospital of Cologne, 50924 Cologne, Germany.


In spite of the remarkable progress made in the burgeoning field of social neuroscience, the neural mechanisms that underlie social encounters are only beginning to be studied and could – paradoxically – be seen as representing the “dark matter” of social neuroscience. Recent conceptual and empirical developments consistently indicate the need for investigations that allow the study of real-time social encounters in a truly interactive manner. This suggestion is based on the premise that social cognition is fundamentally different when we are in interaction with others rather than merely observing them. In this article, we outline the theoretical conception of a second-person approach to other minds and review evidence from neuroimaging, psychophysiological studies, and related fields to argue for the development of a second-person neuroscience, which will help neuroscience to really “go social”; this may also be relevant for our understanding of psychiatric disorders construed as disorders of social cognition.

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  • interactor's point of view;
  • mentalizing network;
  • mirror neuron system;
  • observer's point of view;
  • “problem” of other minds;
  • second-person neuroscience;
  • social cognition

Leonhard Schilbach received his medical degree from the University of Dresden and doctoral degree from the University of Cologne. He is currently working as a clinician and research group leader at the Department of Psychiatry at the University Hospital Cologne. He is the principal investigator in an inter-disciplinary research project, which – together with Bert Timmermans and Tobias Schlicht – focuses on the investigation of psychological, philosophical, and neuroscientific aspects of social interaction. He has published more than 20 peer reviewed articles in the domain of social neuroscience and psychiatry and has been the recipient of the Hans-Heimann-Award in recognition of the relevance of his neuroscientific work for psychiatry.

Bert Timmermans obtained his Ph.D. at the Vrije Universteit Brussel, worked at the Université Libre de Bruxelles, and as a Marie Curie Fellow and a Volkswagen Foundation Fellow at the Medical Faculty of the University of Cologne. He currently holds a Lecturer position at the University of Aberdeen and has published empirical, theoretical, and neural network modeling papers on unconscious processes in social cognition, implicit learning, and subjective measures of awareness.

Vasudevi Reddy is Professor of Developmental and Cultural Psychology and Director of the Centre for Situated Action and Communication at the University of Portsmouth. Her research focuses on the origins and development of social cognition and on the role of emotional engagement in social understanding.

Alan Costall is Professor of Theoretical Psychology and Deputy Director of the Centre for Situated Action and Communication at the University of Portsmouth. His theoretical and historical work examines the origins of dualistic thinking that pervades modern psychology. His research explores the implications of a broadly ecological approach to the human sciences.

Gary Bente is Professor of Social and Media Psychology at the University of Cologne. He has published extensively on nonverbal communication and person perception in face-to-face and mediated interactions. He contributed to the introduction of novel methods for the microanalysis and computer simulation of human movement behavior. His recent work takes a cross-cultural perspective on nonverbal behavior and impression formation.

Tobias Schlicht is Professor of Philosophy with a focus on Consciousness and Cognition at Ruhr-Universität Bochum. He is leading a junior research group, whose work focuses on intentionality and social interaction, and has published primarily on topics in the areas of Philosophy of Mind and Cognitive Science.

Kai Vogeley is Professor of Psychiatry and group leader of the Functional Imaging Laboratory at the Department of Psychiatry at the University Hospital Cologne and group leader of the Social Cognition Group at the Institute of Neurosciences and Medicine (INM-3) at the Research Center Juelich. He has published more than 150 articles and book chapters in the domain of social neuroscience, psychiatry, and philosophy.


1.  Authors Leonhard Schilbach and Bert Timmermans have contributed equally to this article.

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