Can Brain Scans Predict How Self-Absorbed Our Behavior Will Be?

Meghan Meyer, who joined Columbia this year, is studying the brain mechanisms that allow us to understand our social world.

Christopher D. Shea
April 20, 2023

Growing up, Meghan Meyer, who joined the psychology department as an assistant professor this year, thought she would try to be a fiction writer. Meyer was drawn to novels by authors like David Foster Wallace, Zadie Smith, and Michael Cunningham, whose fiction explores the complex relationships between characters and their social worlds.

When she got to college, that longstanding interest led her to neuroscience. Meyer joined Columbia in January from Dartmouth. Columbia News spoke with her about her current research, her favorite books, and how she spends her time with her dog, Olive.

What’s the current focus of the research at the Columbia Social Neuroscience Lab, where you’re the director?

My research in general investigates the brain mechanisms that allow us to learn about our social networks, both in terms of learning about other people that we interact with day to day, and also learning about ourselves in the social network: How do other people see us? What is our relative standing in the social network? And then also, how do we represent other people and their relationships with each other? People are doing these things all the time, and I’m trying to figure out precisely how the brain supports those activities.

A lot of my current research is focusing on one network in the brain called the default network. It’s called that because it engages by default whenever people are resting and relaxing without any big psychological task to do. The default network is good for us; it probably evolved to help us rest and assess the social world we live in during our downtime, but it can also go haywire: We see that when people are entering this state too much, it’s closely associated with depression and anxiety.

In my lab, we spend a lot of time trying to figure out what the default network is doing during rest that might relate to or predict our everyday social experiences.

What’s a current study that can give a sense of how your research works?

In one study that’s currently undergoing peer review we look at the default brain state that your brain enters when you're just relaxing. My graduate student, Danika Geisler—who will be transferring to Columbia in the fall—and I wanted to know if the way people “default” to the default network predicts their self-absorption. We know from prior work that people, at least in Western countries, spend a lot of time focusing on themselves. We used imaging of the brain to predict whether you’re going to be self-absorbed and want to think about yourself next, or if you’d rather start to think about other people you know, like your friends. Overwhelmingly, people choose to think about themselves, rather than other people. And it turns out we can predict the bias toward self-absorption really well: By just looking at your brain at rest for a few seconds we can predict with 81% accuracy whether in the next moment you want to think about yourself or other people.

How does the study figure that out?

So, for this study, people are in the brain scanner for a long time, about two hours. In the first half of the experiment, people are asked whether, in the second half of the experiment, they want to think about themselves, a friend, or a public figure they don’t know personally. In reality, their answer to the question doesn’t affect the second half of the study, but they think it will. We ask them that question in several different ways, repeatedly, and observe their brain in between each ask to see if we can predict how they will respond to the question (themselves, a friend, or a public figure) the next time. And we find that by measuring the default network, we can predict their responses with a lot of accuracy.

What was the question that led you to design this study?

We really wanted to learn more about how this default state works, when the brain is at rest. What is it doing? Is it predicting our behavior? Is it achieving anything for us? And actually, one of my favorite authors, David Foster Wallace, once said that the self is our “default setting.” We wanted to see if he was right. So that’s why we designed our experiment the way we did, to get people in this resting state to think about what they wanted to do next and see the brain patterns we “default to” help explain why, as Foster Wallace said, the self is our default setting.

What got you interested in this line of research, particularly about ourselves and our social networks?

Growing up I was very interested in novels. I love stories about people. For example, in David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, you see how different people with unique points-of-view respond to the same hit film. In Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, you follow the complicated emotional contingencies between friends and lovers. In Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, you learn how women from different generations make sense of their identity within their social milieu. In each of these stories, you learn important truths about identity and everyday social life. I got so much joy out of analyzing these characters and considering how social hierarchies shaped their experience. Once I was in college, I got interested in neuroscience. I guess I see both of those interests playing out in my career. Now, I enjoy thinking about how our brains allow us to learn about ourselves and the complex social networks we’re embedded in. 

Do you find that when you’re out on the street, you see people and think “they’re spacing out, their default network is coming on.” 

Definitely. And that’s not a bad thing. We all need to take a break sometimes. Neuroscientists and psychologists have known for a while that rest is important for learning non-social information—that’s why it’s good to rest after studying for an exam. My lab is showing how rest also helps us prioritize learning about ourselves and others, perhaps to help ensure we succeed socially, too. I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of social learning goes on while we mindwander on the subway. 

Favorite things to do in New York so far?

My husband and I went to a great jazz club where we saw the Nicholas Payton Trio play. I also really like going on walks with my pet greyhound, Olive. The two of us have fun watching the city change as we walk through different neighborhoods.