A Quick Guide to “The 15 Minute Coffee Break Syndrome”

What do you see when you look at someone’s face? Is the person happy or sad, angry or confused, surprised or afraid? Sometimes a person may be saying one thing, but his or her face is saying something else.

You don’t have to be Dr. Cal Lightman from the television series Lie to Me or Dr. Paul Ekman, the world’s foremost expert in facial expressions on whom the series is based, to detect someone’s emotions. A person’s face, voice, and body language may all be used as cues to decipher that person’s emotional state. Your ability to detect these emotions helps with your social cognition.

What is Social Cognition?

Social cognition is the ability to decode and encode the social world, and it is a common problem for people with acquired brain injuries.1 They may have deficits in several areas that underlie social cognition:

  • Sensory processing– vision and hearing
  • Pragmatics– meaning, rules, and use of language
  • Cognitive functions– attention, memory, and executive functions

Trouble in these areas leads to difficulty comprehending an emotion being displayed and interpreting social communication.

What is “The 15-Minute Coffee Break Syndrome?”

In the clinic, we commonly refer to problems with social cognition as “the 15-minute coffee break syndrome.” A person with an acquired brain injury may be able to regain all the skills needed to return to a job, but if the person lacks social cognition, he or she will often be unable to handle the small interactions that happen in the hallways, in the break room, and at other non-work activities. The inability to partake in these interactions will often lead to the loss of a job in which the person would otherwise be successful.

In addition to the loss of employment, people with deficits in social cognition often lose their social network. They suffer a reduction in their pre-injury circle of friends and can experience difficulty making new friends.2 An eroding social network may lead to social isolation, loneliness, and depression.

How Do We Address Social Cognition Deficits?

To improve social cognition, you must understand its underlying mechanisms and appropriate methods for evaluation. With this knowledge, you will be able to address this deficit impacting the life-long relationships and quality of life in your clients.

  1. Struchen, M.A. (2005). Social communication interventions. In W. M. High, A.M. Sander, M. A. Struchen & K. A. Hart (Eds.) Rehabilitation for Traumatic Brain Injury. New York: Oxford University Press.
  2. Hoofien, D., Gilboa, A., Vakel,E., & Donvick, P.J. (2001). Traumatic brain injury (TBI) 10-20 years later: A comprehensive outcome study of psychiatric symptomatology, cognitive abilities, and psychosocial functioning. Brain Injury, 15, 189-209.