Jorie Koster-Hale, CBMM Thrust 4 (MIT, Saxe Lab), Moral Psychology Lab (Harvard U.)
Topic: Thinking in patterns: representations in the neural basis of theory of mind
Abstract: Social life depends on understanding other people’s behavior: why they do the things they do, and what they are likely to do next. These actions are just observable consequences of an unobservable, internal causal structure: the person’s intentions, beliefs, and goals. A cornerstone of the human capacity for social cognition is the ability to reason about these invisible causes; having a “theory of mind”. A remarkable body of evidence has demonstrated that social cognition reliably and selectively recruits a specific group of brain regions. Building on prior work, which has for the most part focused on where in the brain mental state reasoning occurs, the research here investigates how neural populations encode concepts underlying mental state inference.
I demonstrate that functional neuroimaging can find behaviorally relevant features of mental state representation within the cortical regions that support social cognition, in three domains: intention (the relationship between beliefs and action), knowledge source (the relationship between beliefs and perceptual evidence), and emotion (the relationship between beliefs and feelings). I argue that these features are abstract, continuous, and related to human behavior. This work provides a key next step in understanding the neural basis of social cognition, by demonstrating that it is possible to find abstract features of mental state inferences inside "social" brain regions, and taking a first step in characterizing their content and format.
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