Teachers recruit mentalizing regions to represent learners’ beliefs

TitleTeachers recruit mentalizing regions to represent learners’ beliefs
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2023
AuthorsVélez, N, Chen, AM, Burke, T, Cushman, FA, Gershman, SJ
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
Date Published05/2023


Humans are remarkably efficient teachers. For example, an experienced forager can teach a novice how to distinguish delicious morels from similar, toxic mushrooms by pointing out a few distinctive features. These features constitute a tiny fraction of what a knowledgeable teacher could possibly point out. Out of all the things we could teach, how do our brains compute what information is most helpful to communicate? Here, we find that specialized regions in the brains of teachers track learners’ beliefs during teaching. These results shed light on the neural mechanisms that support our extraordinary abilities as teachers.


Teaching enables humans to impart vast stores of culturally specific knowledge and skills. However, little is known about the neural computations that guide teachers’ decisions about what information to communicate. Participants (N = 28) played the role of teachers while being scanned using fMRI; their task was to select examples that would teach learners how to answer abstract multiple-choice questions. Participants’ examples were best described by a model that selects evidence that maximizes the learner’s belief in the correct answer. Consistent with this idea, participants’ predictions about how well learners would do closely tracked the performance of an independent sample of learners (N = 140) who were tested on the examples they had provided. In addition, regions that play specialized roles in processing social information, namely the bilateral temporoparietal junction and middle and dorsal medial prefrontal cortex, tracked learners’ posterior belief in the correct answer. Our results shed light on the computational and neural architectures that support our extraordinary abilities as teachers.

Short TitleProc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A.

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