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The Role of Social Synchrony in Schizophrenia

Social neuroscience may be a new way to explain what schizophrenia is.

Key points

  • Schizophrenia is largely viewed as an individual disorder without context with the greater environment.
  • The emergent field of social neuroscience is attempting to explain schizophrenia in a social context.
  • Social synchrony, or a lack thereof, is a hallmark symptom of schizophrenia.
  • By assessing the the level of social synchrony, researchers may be able to predict disorganized thinking.
Unsplash/Helena Lopes
Source: Unsplash/Helena Lopes

Co-authored with Emmanuel Olarewaju

In traditional schizophrenia research, emphasis is placed primarily on the individual. Research frequently employs tools like functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to dissect the neurobiological underpinnings of the disorder in individual brains. These scans often provide invaluable insights into neural activity, highlighting irregularities in brain regions associated with memory, emotion, and executive functions. Concurrently, therapeutic strategies, ranging from antipsychotic medications to cognitive-behavioral therapy, have been tailored to normalize individual neurochemistry and mitigate particular symptomatology.

However, this individual-centric approach has limitations. Existing research paradigms overlook a critical dimension: the reciprocal relationship between the individual and their broader social environment.

While medications may alleviate auditory hallucinations or paranoid delusions, for example, they seldom address the social withdrawal and dysfunction that often accompany schizophrenia. Conventional therapies may not fully account for how societal factors, such as stigmatization or social isolation, can exacerbate individual symptoms and impede recovery.

How Social Neuroscience Reveals Insights Into Schizophrenia

Researchers affiliated with McGill University, the Douglas Mental Health University Institute, and the CHU Sainte Justine Research Center in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, offer a compelling alternative perspective on schizophrenia in their 2023 paper, “Disorganized communication and social dysfunction in schizophrenia: Emerging concepts and methods” [1]. These researchers propose that viewing schizophrenia predominantly as a neurobiological condition fails to account for the full spectrum of its manifestations.

Instead, they argue that a substantial portion of schizophrenia's most debilitating symptoms stem from social dysfunction. Specifically, they assert that the difficulties individuals with schizophrenia face in integrating into social structures are one of the disorder's hallmark features.

McGill Ph.D. candidate and co-author of this piece, Emmanuel Olarewaju, is doing research that employs an innovative methodology based on social neuroscience principles. It introduces a novel conceptual framework aimed at understanding the complex origins of schizophrenia, specifically attributing the disorder's onset to disruptions in what is referred to as "interpersonal space."

"Interpersonal space" is defined by quantifiable oscillations comprising two interconnected cycles of interaction: the "internal" and "external" loops. The "internal loop" encapsulates intrapersonal cognitive and affective representations about others, which manifest as identifiable neural activity patterns. The "external loop," in contrast, pertains to the observable interactions between individuals, as captured through both neural and behavioural metrics—encompassing both verbal and non-verbal modalities (i.e., interpersonal processes).

These internal and external loops are foundational to "intersubjectivity," which refers to the mutual understanding and shared meanings that emerge during social exchanges. Within this measurable domain of interpersonal space, the two loops participate in well-defined spatiotemporal dynamics.

These interactions serve as the foundation for what is colloquially recognized as social synchrony—a phenomenon generally assumed to be innate among neurotypical individuals. Importantly, these intricate interplays are not merely ancillary; they constitute essential aspects of social cognition and behaviour, the impairment of which serves as a hallmark of schizophrenia.

"Social synchrony" refers to the seamless coordination between individuals' actions and reactions during social interactions. Challenges in effectively utilizing cognitive resources for behaviors like imitation or mimicry can result from impaired social synchrony.

Various diagnostic tools that assess this synchrony typically focus on specific metrics, such as patterns in speech and nonverbal cues. These cues encompass elements like the recognition of facial expressions and the matching of behaviours between interacting individuals.

Social interactions can be defined by complex choreography, wherein participants both mirror and contribute unique behavioral sequences. For individuals with schizophrenia, this harmonious choreography is notably distorted. Particular symptoms like echolalia, the involuntary repetition of words or phrases, and echopraxia, the reflexive mirroring of observed movements, severely hinder the individual's ability to integrate into social contexts and adapt appropriately.

Social Impairments in Individuals With Schizophrenia

Under typical circumstances, individuals sharing a physical environment are expected to effortlessly share awareness of specific environmental details, such as social norms, spatial orientation, or non-verbal cues, without cognitive impediments. In contrast, individuals with schizophrenia might find it challenging to recognize, interpret, or appropriately respond to these social signals. This difficulty often arises from their heightened focus on internal mental phenomena, which disrupts the natural flow of social interactions and impairs their ability to function effectively in interpersonal settings.

In individuals with schizophrenia, the ability to assimilate crucial environmental details, which facilitate a grounded understanding of reality, is often impaired. These contextual cues may be categorized as “priors,” with “private priors” denoting information originating from the individual's hallucinations or delusions and "shared priors" referring to environmental details that are collectively recognized and validated by multiple individuals.

If neural activity predominates in regions such as the prefrontal cortex or the anterior cingulate cortex, which are implicated in generating “private priors” (i.e., initiating hallucinatory or delusional experiences), the individual in question is posited to exhibit reduced levels of social synchrony. In contrast, individuals predominantly influenced by "shared priors" are hypothesized to exhibit enhanced social synchrony, manifesting fewer cognitive impairments in domains like disorganized thought and speech patterns. Here, “induce” refers to these brain regions' causal initiation or triggering of specific cognitive states.

What We Still Don't Know

This research is an emerging field that attempts to explain schizophrenia in the context of the social and environmental worlds that place schizophrenia within the broader matrices of social and environmental interactions.

Despite its promise, inherent limitations exist, including the potential non-generalizability of findings beyond the specific populations studied. This limitation is primarily due to the ever-changing and context-specific nature of social interactions, which may vary according to the unique characteristics of individuals.

Nonetheless, these initial findings suggest that further research is warranted. Specifically, future studies should strive to contextualize individuals with schizophrenia within broader socio-environmental frameworks, with the ultimate aim of devising more encompassing therapeutic interventions for treating the disorder.


Olarewaju, E., Dumas, G., & Palaniyappan, L. (2023). Disorganized communication and social dysfunction in schizophrenia: Emerging concepts and methods.

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