Neural basis of making mental state inferences about groups of people

Much owing to recent research efforts, understanding of how the human brain represents intentions of other persons has steadily increased. Neuroimaging studies have disclosed several brain regions that are critically involved in enabling humans to have theory of mind of other persons, including medial prefrontal cortex, anterior temporal lobe, temporoparietal junction, and medial parietal cortex. In addition to inferring intentions of another person, however, intentions are often attributed to groups of people (e.g., “cognitive neuroscientists aim to solve the mind-body problem”). It has remained unexplored whether the brain mechanisms that enable one to simulate the mind of another person are the same as (or different from) the cerebral events that take place when mentalizing about the intentions of social groups.

In their recent study, Dr. Juan Manuel Contreras et al. (2013) carried out two experiments in healthy volunteers with functional magnetic resonance imaging. Pictures of groups and individuals were shown to participants during scanning, and they were to make judgments about whether either groups or individuals would enjoy a long car ride (i.e., a mentalizing task) vs. whether either groups or individuals would stay afloat in a raft or with a pair of arm floatation devices (i.e., a judgment task not requiring making inferences about the mental states of others). It was observed that brain regions that responded when making inferences about the mental states of other persons are also responding when inferences were made about the mental states of groups of people, however, multivoxel pattern analysis disclosed that distributed patterns of activity within these areas differed when making inferences about mental states of individuals vs. groups.

These highly exciting and results pave way for an important area of cognitive neuroscience, namely extending research on the neural basis of social cognition to studying how it is possible for one to perceive, understand, and predict social group behavior. Humans are inherently social species, and social groups play a central role in the lives of everyone. Given this, bridging the gap between scientific fields that study social groups (such as social psychology and sociology) and cognitive neuroscience is a very promising and fruitful relatively new area of research.

Reference: Contreras JM, Schirmer J, Banaji MR, Mitchell JP. Common brain regions with distinct patterns of neural responses during mentalizing about groups and individuals. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience (2013) e-publication ahead of print. http://dx.doi.org/10.1162/jocn_a_00403

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