Human social perception, cognition, communication and interaction all require the efficient analysis and representation of person-related information. Faces or voices convey a large variety of socially relevant information including a person’s identity, emotions, gender, age, attractiveness, or focus of attention. We investigate both perceptual mechanisms for processing such complex social stimuli, and cognitive processes by which humans then evaluate and utilise those signals in the interest of optimising their social actions. In our experiments we can (1) use naturalistic but precisely controlled person stimuli (e.g. image-, video-, and voice-morphs of the social signal under study), and (2) visualize brain activity involved in social perception, cognition and communication via various non-invasive techniques from the cognitive neurosciences (EEG, MEG, fMRI). Importantly, while abilities of person perception and social cognition are typically experienced as efficient and effortless, recent research has revealed the existence of substantial individual differences (e.g. Kaufmann et al., 2013). Crucially, specific deficits or alterations emerge in autism spectrum disorders (e.g. Schneider et al., 2013, Kuchinke et al., 2011).
Our research in person perception has a multimodal perspective, and addresses the perception of faces and voices (Schweinberger et al., 2014, Schweinberger & Burton, 2011). We have demonstrated the brain´s remarkable ability for on-line audiovisual integration of facial and vocal signals during social perception (Schweinberger, 2013). Further, we showed that mental perspective taking (or “theory of mind”) is highly relevant for adults in implicit circumstances (Schneider et al., 2012) as is often the case in natural social interactions. A unified research approach to person perception, social cognition and theory of mind research has been largely lacking in the past. We seek to integrate these approaches in our present and future research (Schweinberger & Schneider, 2014). Our aim is to promote a fuller understanding of normal and altered human systems of person perception and social cognition, to help unfreeze social potentials in autism spectrum disorders, and to support affected individuals in leading better, more integrated and fulfilled lives.