Social and Cognitive Neuroscience
Justification | Research Questions | Existing Strength | Deliverables | Plan | Knowledge Exchange

Advances in brain sciences and non-invasive neuro-imaging technology, such as MRI, PET, EEG, and optical imaging, have opened brand new avenues for research that promotes our understanding of the neural coupling of human behaviors. These advances have given impetus to the rapid development of the field of neuroscience. In recent decades, the Chinese and other governments have invested significant resources to promote neuroscience research. This focus is based on the potential impact of neuroscience in the 21st century, since the human brain is the basis for our behaviours, as individuals, as citizens, and as consumers.

Among the many disciplines in neuroscience, “Social and Cognitive Neuroscience” is a newly emerging field of research that devotes itself to addressing fundamental questions about the mind and its dynamic interactions with both the biological systems of the brain and body, and with the social world in which it resides. It is concerned about the relationship between neural and socio-cognitive-affective processes involved in perception and cognition, social cognition, motivation, emotion, interpersonal and group processes, and social influences on health and mortality. (see

The launching of “Social and Cognitive Neuroscience” as a new faculty strategic research theme offers a timely opportunity for HKU to provide leadership in this area of research and development, to develop consolidated theoretical and applied models (developed via animal and human studies) capable of addressing the unique needs of the Chinese population. Research and teaching encompassed in the activities subsumed under this strategic theme will offer a fertile training ground for future leaders in this area.



Faculty of Social Sciences has a strong track record in behavioral, neuropsychological, and social policy studies and outputs. Marrying the research strengths of different departments and research groups/centres within the faculty, we are ready to kick start a timely strategic research theme – Social and Cognitive Neuroscience.

Research on social and cognitive neuroscience calls upon multidisciplinary collaborative research activities within and across universities/Faculties/Departments. It also provides ample opportunities of regional as well as international collaboration among the social, medical, and neuroimaging disciplines on animal and human research, with the aim of building empirical data that promote our understanding of human behaviours. The empirical findings will eventually be translated into practical applications of promoting social and brain health of humans (knowledge exchange).

The work encompassed in this timely strategic research theme – Social and Cognitive Neuroscience is of clear relevance to some of the University’s already existing strategic research areas/themes, such as biomedical engineering, healthy ageing, public health, sciences of learning, and genomics. It is also in line with the research development of the State Key Laboratory of Brain and Cognitive Sciences. From a global perspective, the very young history of social and cognitive neuroscience and yet the vast amount of research attention that it has received are clear indicators that it is the opportune time for HKU to take the lead in shaping the development of the field in the Asian Pacific regions and beyond.


Research Questions

We seek to understand the fundamental cognitive-affective networks of the human brain, particularly as they relate to how information in the environment is being processed and understood. We further seek to extend our models of these basic interactions with the environment to socio-cognitive-affective processes that are important for developing responsible and innovative global citizens, in particular advantageous decision making, self-regulation, and social competence.

  1. How does the human brain support general cognitive and affective processes such as perception, language, memory, attention, and emotional processes?
  2. Are these general cognitive and affective processes sufficient to explain advantageous decision making, self-regulation, and social competence? Or, over and above these general processes, are there processes that are special to these socio-cognitive-affective functions?
  3. What are the neural underpinnings of advantageous decision making, self-regulation, and social competence?
  4. How do the cognitive processes determining decision making, self-regulation, and social competence develop/change across the life span; and how might they being affected by brain pathologies such as stroke, parkinson’s disease, dementia?
  5. How do biological factors interact with environmental variables to produce individual differences (phenotypes) in these socio-cognitive-affective processes?
  6. How can brain changes be encouraged, via cognitive and/or behavioral interventions, in the direction that facilitates healthy development of the above listed socio-cognitive-affective functions? If so, can we promote resilience to the adverse impact of undesirable physical factors (e.g. stress, normal ageing, brain pathologies) and/or psychological stress (e.g. emotion disorders and adjustment problems) on psychological well-being?
  7. What public and social policies should be developed and advocated to promote healthy development of the listed socio-cognitive-affective functions so as to encourage positive development of these functions across the life span (early childhood attachment and stimulation; achieving intellectual and social maturity in primary, secondary and tertiary education; mastery of study to work transitions; coping with new roles in adulthood as spouse and parents, exercise and health promotion, and last but not the least positive retirement and ageing)?

Existing Strength

  1. Already established collaborations among departments (e.g. Psychology, Social Work and Social Administration, Anatomy, Biochemistry, Medicine, Psychiatry, Radiology) / centres (e.g. FoSS centres of Biopsychosocial and Developmental Research, Centre of Buddhist Studies) / research network (e.g. HKU AD Research Network) / faculties (e.g. Social Sciences, Arts, Medicine) / Institutes (e.g. Overseas: University of Oxford, University of Cambridge, Institute of Psychiatry of King’s College, University College London, University of California Los Angeles, Harvard University, University of Wisconsin Madison, University of Texas at San Antonio, University of Pennsylvania, University of Chicago,Vanderbilt University, University of Minnesota, University of California San Diego; Regional: Peking University, Beijing Normal University, National University of Singapore, Kyoto University, Chang Gang University; Local: CUHK, UST, CitiU, PolyU, IEd).

  2. Already has an established track record of publications in high impact journals (e.g. Nature, Molecular Psychiatry, Cerebral Cortex, Current Biology, Nature Neuroscience, Neuron.)
  1. Already involved in the first International Society for Social Neuroscience (as founding member) that mentors and shapes research development of the field.


The following deliverables are to facilitate the leading role of our faculty and university in “Social and Cognitive Neuroscience”

  1. Publications in high impact journals
  2. International Symposia and Conferences
  3. External Funding, e.g. GRF, PPF, CRF, AoE, and/or Theme-based Research Fund by the Research Grant Council.
  4. Undergraduate and postgraduate teaching to local and exchange students.


Research activities within and between institutes/faculties/departments/centres are encouraged. Large equipment would need to be purchased. There should also be an annual budget for (1) general expenses for MRI scanning, cortisol package, genomic studies, (2) computing equipment + softwares, (3) Research staff (one research team per question raised in the theme. Each team should consist of a PI, a PDF, RAs, and Rpgs.)

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