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Other People's Thoughts in Your Brain: fMRI studies of Theory of Mind

Dr. Rebecca Saxe

Tuesday, February 08, 2005, 01:00pm - 02:00pm

McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT

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Evidence from� developmental psychology suggests that understanding other minds
constitutes a special domain of cognition with at least two components: an
early-developing system for reasoning about goals, perceptions, and emotions,
and a later-developing system for representing the contents of beliefs.
Neuroimaging� reinforces this view by providing evidence that distinct brain
regions in adults are engaged for reasoning about belief contents, and for
representing goals and actions. In the right temporo-parietal junction (RTPJ),
BOLD activity increases selectively when subjects reason about the contents of
beliefs. Our previous research established that the response of the RTPJ was
high when subjects had to reason about another person�s false belief, but not
when subjects reasoned about mechanical causes, or the false contents of an
out-dated photograph (Saxe and Kanwisher 2003). Also, the RTPJ response was
equally low when subjects read descriptions of the physical appearance of a
person, or of an inanimate object. In more recent work, we found that the
RTPJ�s response to the attribution of true beliefs was robust. However, in the
absence of explicit mental state attribution, the RTPJ was not recruited for
(1) processing socially relevant information about a person, e.g. social group
membership, or (2) representing another person�s transient experiential state,
e.g. thirst, tiredness, heat. Taken together, these results suggest that BOLD
activity in the RTPJ is a selective index of subject�s Theory of Mind reasoning
� that is, of attribution of mental states. The RTPJ is functionally and
anatomically distinct from the posterior STS region involved in representing

Dr. Rebecca Saxe