Theory-of-mind engages brain autobiographical memory mechanisms when inferring the mental states of familiar people

Theory of mind refers to one’s ability to infer mental states of other persons (what they think, feel, know and do not know, their intentions etc) that is arguably one of the most fascinating of human cognitive abilities. The constituent processes of theory of mind ability (such as being able to retrieve relevant person-specific information from memory) have remained less well known. Previous neuroimaging studies that have utilized theory-of-mind tasks have reported that there is an overlap between brain regions that are activated during theory-of-mind and autobiographical memory tasks, thus suggesting that one retrieves past personal experiences when inferring mental states of other persons. In contrast, however, brain lesions studies have shown that theory of mind ability is not necessarily disrupted in amnesic patients.

In their recent neuroimaging study, Rabin and Rosenbaum (2012) addressed the question of whether the reliance on autobiographical memory during theory-of-mind tasks depends on whether or not the person about whom inferences are made is personally known. The authors requested healthy volunteers to 1) remember past experiences when presented with personal photos and 2) to imagine experiences of others to photos who were personally familiar vs. 3) unfamiliar. A spatiotemporal partial least squares analysis of the functional magnetic resonance imaging data that were acquired during these tasks revealed neural activation patterns associated with the autobiographical memory, and theory of mind tasks during the personally familiar and unfamiliar conditions.

Interestingly, there was overlap between brain activity patterns in the autobiographical memory condition and in the theory-of-mind condition that involved inference of mental states of personally known others. In contrast, brain regions associated with social semantic memory were activated during inference of mental states of unfamiliar others. Taken together the results of Rabin and Rosenbaum reveal important information about the constituent processes of theory-of-mind ability and the underlying neural mechanisms; it seems that theory-of-mind engages autobiographical memory when personally familiar others are the subjects of mental state inference, and general social semantic memory when the subject of mental state inference is an unknown person.


Rabin JS, Rosenbaum RS. Familiarity modulates the functional relationship between theory of mind and autobiographical memory. Neuroimage (2012, available online prior to printed publication). http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.neuroimage.2012.05.002

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