The Link between Social Cognition and
Self-referential Thought in the Medial
Jason P. Mitchell1,2, Mahzarin R. Banaji1, and C. Neil Macrae2
& The medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) has been implicated
in seemingly disparate cognitive functions, such as under-
standing the minds of other people and processing informa-
tion about the self. This functional overlap would be
expected if humans use their own experiences to infer the
mental states of others, a basic postulate of simulation theory.
Neural activity was measured while participants attended to
either the mental or physical aspects of a series of other
people. To permit a test of simulation theory’s prediction
that inferences based on self-reflection should only be made
for similar others, targets were subsequently rated for their
degree of similarity to self. Parametric analyses revealed a
region of the ventral mPFC—previously implicated in self-
referencing tasks—in which activity correlated with perceived
self/other similarity, but only for mentalizing trials. These
results suggest that self-reflection may be used to infer the
mental states of others when they are sufficiently similar to
Recent neuroimaging and neuropsychological research
has explored the functional neuroanatomy of social
cognition—for instance, by examining brain regions that
subserve an understanding of the psychological proper-
ties of other people, such as their beliefs, feelings, and
personalities. This research has identified the medial
prefrontal cortex (mPFC) as a region that supports fun-
damental aspects of social–cognitive functioning across a
wide array of tasks (Blakemore, Winston, & Frith, 2004;
Gallagher & Frith, 2003; Frith & Frith, 2001; Adolphs,
1999, 2001), such as judging whether a historical figure
would know how to use various objects (Goel, Grafman,
Sadato, & Hallett, 1995), making inferences about
the mental states of characters in stories or cartoons
(Gregory et al., 2002; Gallagher, Happe ´, et al., 2000;
Stone, Baron-Cohen, & Knight, 1998; Fletcher et al.,
1995), playing interactive games that require second-
guessing an opponent (Gallagher, Jack, Roepstorff, &
Frith, 2002; McCabe, Houser, Ryan, Smith, & Trouard,
2001), judging the characteristics of others (Mason,
Banfield, & Macrae, 2004; Mitchell, Heatherton, &
Macrae, 2002), and encoding information about an-
other’s personality (Mitchell, Macrae, & Banaji, 2004).
Despite these repeated observations that the mPFC
contributes critically to core aspects of social cognition,
surprisingly little is known about the precise functional
role that this region plays in the human capacity to
understand the minds of others. In part, characterization
of mPFC functioning has been complicated by the
observation that, together with its role in inferring the
mental states of others, this region has also been
associated with tasks that require people to reflect on,
or introspect about, their own inner mental states. For
example, activity in the ventral mPFC has been observed
during tasks in which participants report on their own
personalities or preferences (Schmitz, Kawahara-Baccus,
& Johnson, 2004; Johnson et al., 2002; Kelley et al., 2002;
Zysset, Huber, Ferstl, & von Cramon, 2002), adopt a
first-person perspective (Vogeley et al., 2004), or reflect
on their current affective state (Gusnard, Akbudak,
Shulman, & Raichle, 2001), as well as in the memory
advantage that emerges when items are encoded in
a self-relevant manner (Macrae, Moran, Heatherton,
Banfield, & Kelley, 2004).
At first glance, the observation that the mPFC sub-
serves seemingly discrete cognitive functions of mental
state attribution and self-reflection poses something of a
conundrum. In actual fact, however, such an overlap
may be expected if perceivers use their own experience
to predict or understand the mental states of others
(Gallagher & Frith, 2003; Frith & Frith, 2001). Indeed,
some influential theoretical accounts of social–cognitive
functioning have suggested just such a possibility.
Broadly known as ‘‘simulation’’ theory, these accounts
posit that one powerful strategy for inferring the mental
states of other people is to imagine one’s own thoughts,
1Harvard University,2Dartmouth College
D 2005 Massachusetts Institute of TechnologyJournal of Cognitive Neuroscience 17:8, pp. 1306–1315
feelings, or behaviors in a similar situation (Adolphs,
2002; Meltzoff & Brooks, 2001; Nickerson, 1999; Gallese
1992; Heal, 1986). Proponents of simulation theory
point out that, although never enjoying direct access
to the internal workings of another person’s mind, one
does have continuous, first-hand experience of a highly
similar system—namely, one’s own mind. Accordingly,
one may use self-reflection as a tool to understand or
predict the mental states of others, at least under certain
conditions. Empirical support for the notion that peo-
ple frequently use their own experience as a basis for
inferring the minds of others (either consciously or
unconsciously) comes from demonstrations that per-
ceivers routinely overestimate what others know based
on what they themselves know (Fussell & Krauss, 1992;
Griffin & Ross, 1991) and see their own beliefs and
opinions as representative of other people in general,
the so-called false consensus effect (Nickerson, 1999;
Ross, Greene, & House, 1977).
Could such simulation accounts help explain the
overlap between social–cognitive and self-referential
processing in the mPFC? In the current investigation,
we tested two empirical predictions derived from the
hypothesis that regions of the mPFC contribute to un-
derstanding the mental states of other people through
the implementation of self-reflective processing. First,
although perceivers may introspect about their own
mental states when trying to figure out what another
person is thinking or feeling, such a strategy would not
be useful when making judgments about other, non-
mentalistic aspects of other people, such as judgments
about their appearance or physical location. That is,
regions of the mPFC should be selectively engaged
during social–cognitive tasks that prompt attempts to
apprehend the mental states of another person, but not
during equally challenging tasks that do not require
understanding another’s mind (Gallagher, Jack, et al.,
2002; McCabe et al., 2001).
Second, simulation accounts of mental state attribu-
tion suggest that perceivers only use self-reflection as a
strategy to predict the mental states of others when
these individuals are in some way similar to self. In one
of the first theoretical formulations of the simulation
hypothesis, Heal (1986) pointed out that, in order to
justify simulating the minds of other people, one must
make, ‘‘one simple assumption,’’ namely, ‘‘that they are
like me in being thinkers, that they possess the same
fundamental cognitive capacities and propensities that I
do’’ (p. 137). That is, one can successfully use self-
reflection to provide insight into the internal states of
another person only to the extent that one’s own beliefs,
feelings, and behaviors are deemed to be applicable or
relevant to the individual in question. When this condi-
tion is not satisfied (i.e., self and other are dissimilar),
one is less likely to rely on self-reflection to understand
the other person. Of course, if such a strategy is in
operation, part of the neural system that supports social
cognition must be sensitive to the perceived similar-
ity between self and other in order to modulate self-
reflective processing. Against the backdrop of earlier
neuroimaging research on the neural basis of self-
reflection (Macrae et al., 2004; Schmitz et al., 2004;
Vogeley et al., 2004; Johnson et al., 2002; Kelley et al.,
2002; Zysset et al., 2002; Gusnard et al., 2001), we expect
that the ventral mPFC may serve precisely this function
during tasks that require understanding the mental
states of other people.
In the current experiment, participants underwent
fMRI scanning while judging either the mental or phys-
ical aspects of a series of faces. Specifically, participants
either judged how pleased the target person was to have
his or her photograph taken (mentalizing task) or how
symmetrical the face appeared (nonmentalizing task).
After scanning, participants viewed each photograph
again and indicated the degree to which they perceived
the other person to be similar to themselves. These
ratings enabled trials to be retroactively conditionalized
on the basis of perceived similarity, thereby allowing the
identification of brain regions in which the hemodynam-
ic response correlated with self/other similarity as a
function of the processing goals of the initial orienting
task (i.e., mentalizing or nonmentalizing). Overall, we
expected to observe greater mPFC engagement during
mentalizing trials compared with nonmentalizing trials
(Gallagher & Frith, 2003; Frith & Frith, 2001). In addi-
tion, to the extent that self-reflection guides the un-
derstanding of others, we expected greater ventral
mPFC engagement for targets that were identified as
similar compared to dissimilar to self, but only on the
Mean similarity ratings were comparable for targets that
were initially encountered during mentalizing (M = 1.98)
and nonmentalizing (M = 1.99) trials, t(17) < 1, ns.
Table 1 displays the distribution of similarity ratings
across the two orienting tasks. Participants were more
likely to rate a target as dissimilar than similar, as
evidenced by a significant decrease in the proportion
of items across increasing levels of similarity [F(3,51) =
9.64, p < .0001]. Moreover, this trend was compara-
ble across both mentalizing and nonmentalizing tasks
[Orienting task ? Similarity interaction: F(3,51) = 1.17,
ns]. In addition, across both orienting tasks, participants
did not consider same-sex targets to be more similar
to self than other-sex targets: no main effect of target
sex (same sex as participant vs. other sex as participant)
was observed and target sex did not interact with
orienting task (both Fs < 1.90, ns). In other words,
mean similarity ratings did not differ significantly across
Mitchell, Banaji, and Macrae1307
mentalizing same-sex (M = 2.50), mentalizing other-sex
(M = 2.44), nonmentalizing same-sex (M = 2.44), or
nonmentalizing other-sex trials (M = 2.39). Moreover,
none of the fMRI results were qualified by the match
between sex of participant and sex of target.
We adopted several complementary analytic strategies to
examine differences in neural activation across the ori-
enting tasks. First, we directly contrasted mentalizing
and nonmentalizing trials, regardless of target similarity.
Consistent with earlier research, the contrast of mental-
izing > nonmentalizing yielded a distributed set of
brain regions that have been associated with mental
state attribution, including the dorsal aspect of the
mPFC (Figure 1A), lateral parietal cortex regions in both
hemispheres that included the temporo-parietal junc-
tion, the right superior temporal sulcus, and the left
amygdala extending into the anterior hippocampus (see
Table 2). In contrast, nonmentalizing > mentalizing
yielded loci of activation that were restricted to posterior
brain regions, including the bilateral inferior temporal
cortex, the inferior parietal gyrus, and the occipital
cortex (see Table 3).
Second, to examine how neural activity varied as a
function of perceived self/other similarity, we examined
brain regions in which the BOLD signal correlated with
subsequent similarity ratings; that is, regions in which
greater neural activity was observed during the process-
ing of targets that a participant rated as similar to self
(see Methods section for details). The relation between
BOLD signal and similarity ratings was stronger for
mentalizing than for nonmentalizing trials at a single
locus, located in the ventral mPFC directly anterior to
the genu of the corpus callosum (x = 9, y = 57, z = 3).
As displayed in the rightmost column of Figure 1B,
Table 1. Mean Proportion (and Standard Deviation) of
Mentalizing and Nonmentalizing Trials as a Function of
Subsequent Similarity Rating
Subjects judged the similarity of targets on a 4-point scale anchored
by 1 = very dissimilar from me; 2 = somewhat dissimilar from me;
3 = somewhat similar to me; 4 = very similar to me.
Figure 1. Two mPFC regions were identified in the current study. First, the contrast of mentalizing > nonmentalizing yielded a region of
the dorsal mPFC. (A) displays this region on a sagittal (x = ?9) slice of participants’ mean normalized brain. The middle section of the panel
displays hemodynamic timecourses extracted from this dorsal mPFC region, representing the BOLD response associated with mentalizing (solid
circles) and nonmentalizing (dashed open triangles) trials. Second, parametric analyses of fMRI data identified a region of the ventral mPFC (x = 9,
y = 57, z = 3) in which BOLD signal correlated with participants’ subsequent similarity ratings for targets in the mentalizing task, but not in
the nonmentalizing task. (B) displays this region on a sagittal (x = 6) slice of participants’ mean normalized brain. For both mPFC regions, the
rightmost graphs display parameter estimates obtained for mentalizing and nonmentalizing trials at three levels of similarity: high (rating of 3
or 4; leftmost solid black bars), moderate (rating of 2; middle solid gray bars), and low (rating of 1; rightmost striped bars). Error bars represent
the standard error of the mean.
1308 Journal of Cognitive NeuroscienceVolume 17, Number 8
whereas activity in this region was linearly modulated by
target similarity for mentalizing trials (highest for the
most similar targets, lowest for the most dissimilar
targets), no effect of similarity was observed on non-
mentalizing trials. Repeated-measures analysis of vari-
ance demonstrated a significant 2 (orienting task) ? 3
(level of similarity) interaction in the ventral mPFC
[F(2,34) = 4.37, p < .03]. Confirming that the effect of
target similarity was restricted to the mentalizing task,
analysis of the simple main effects demonstrated a
significant difference across level of similarity for men-
talizing trials [F(2,34) = 5.08, p < .02], but not for
nonmentalizing trials [F(2,34) = 0.21, ns]. In addition,
activity in this region was marginally greater for mental-
izing than for nonmentalizing trials ( p < .07, one-tailed).
In no brain region was the relation between BOLD signal
and target similarity stronger for nonmentalizing than
for mentalizing trials.
Finally, the self/other similarity effects observed in the
ventral mPFC were not mirrored in the dorsal mPFC. In-
stead, the pattern of BOLD response in the dorsal mPFC
for mentalizing trials demonstrated a trend toward an
inverse correlation with similarity ratings: mentalizing
about dissimilar others was associated with the highest
response in this region, whereas mentalizing about
similar others was associated with the lowest response
in this region. Although this inverse correlation only
reached marginal significance in the dorsal mPFC
[F(2,34) = 1.77, p < .10, one-tailed], this pattern did
differ significantly from that observed in the ventral
mPFC for mentalizing trials [Similarity ? Region inter-
action: F(2,34) = 7.87, p < .002].
Judgments about the mental state of another person
were associated with a distributed set of brain regions
that overlap considerably with those observed in earlier
studies that have examined the functional neuroanato-
my of social cognition. As reviewed above, the dorsal
mPFC has been implicated in a wide range of tasks
that require understanding the mental states of others
(Blakemore et al., 2004; Mason et al., 2004; Mitchell,
Macrae, et al., 2004; Gallagher & Frith, 2003; Gallagher,
Jack, et al., 2002; Mitchell, Heatherton, et al., 2002; Frith
& Frith, 2001; McCabe et al., 2001; Adolphs, 1999, 2001;
Gallagher, Happe ´, et al., 2000; Fletcher et al., 1995; Goel
et al., 1995). Likewise, a number of other regions ob-
served in the current study are thought to contribute
importantly to various aspects of social cognition, in-
cluding the superior temporal sulcus (biological motion,
gaze detection) (Allison, Puce, & McCarthy, 2000; Puce,
Allison, Bentin, Gore, & McCarthy, 1998), the amygdala
(emotional processing) (Adolphs, 2002; Morris et al.,
1996), and the temporo-parietal junction (which has
been linked to the representation of others’ beliefs)
(Samson, Apperly, Chiavarino, & Humphreys, 2004; Saxe
& Kanwisher, 2003). Activation of these regions was
modulated by the relative mentalizing demands of the
orienting tasks across a common set of stimulus faces.
Specifically, activity indicative of social–cognitive pro-
cessing was only observed when participants were in-
duced to consider the targets as mental agents. When
the initial orienting task instead encouraged participants
to view the targets in a nonmentalistic manner, areas of
the brain associated with object-based processing were
differentially activated (e.g., inferotemporal cortex).
These results suggest that the set of brain regions
Table 2. Peak Voxel and Number of Voxels for Regions
of Interest Obtained from the Contrast of Mentalizing >
Nonmentalizing ( p < .05, corrected)
51 36 5.0930
Inf. frontal gyrusL 12 18 6.04 151
Mid. frontal gyrusL6515.7226
R9 10.62 849
t tests reflect the statistical difference between the two conditions, as
computed by SPM99. Coordinates refer to the Montreal Neurological
Institute stereotaxic space. Inf. = inferior; Mid. = middle; Sup. =
Table 3. Peak Voxel and Number of Voxels for Regions of
Interest Obtained from the Contrast of Nonmentalizing >
Mentalizing ( p < .05, corrected)
Inf. temporal gyrusL
51 ?57 ?12 6.48
Inf. parietal gyrusL39 5.7637
Occipital cortexL 6 6.6497
R 0 8.53 507
Inf. = inferior.
Mitchell, Banaji, and Macrae1309
associated with the current mentalizing task (including
the dorsal mPFC) may specifically implement perceivers’
attempt to understand the behavior, attributes, and
proclivities of others in an agentic manner, but that
these regions do not respond globally to all tasks that
entail person processing (i.e., when one’s task does not
require mental state attribution).
When fMRI analyses were further conditionalized on
the basis of postscanning ratings of self/other similarity,
a correlation between activity in the ventral mPFC and
ratings of similarity was observed. Critically, however,
this correlation only emerged for mentalizing trials. Of
theoretical importance, the peak of this ventral mPFC
activation was remarkably similar to the coordinates
reported by a number of earlier studies that have
examined the neural basis of self-referential processing
(Macrae et al., 2004; Schmitz et al., 2004; Vogeley et al.,
2004; Johnson et al., 2002; Kelley et al., 2002; Zysset
et al., 2002; Gusnard et al., 2001). Table 4 lists the ventral
mPFC coordinates reported in a number of such experi-
ments in which subjects have been asked to engage in
self-referencing tasks that require reporting their per-
sonality characteristics (e.g., judging how well they are
described by the word ‘‘curious’’) (Macrae et al., 2004;
Schmitz et al., 2004; Johnson et al., 2002; Kelley et al.,
2002; Zysset et al., 2002); tasks that contrast first- and
third-person perspectives (Vogeley et al., 2004); or
tasks that require reporting on their current emotions
(Gusnard et al., 2001). On average, these peak coordi-
nates were approximately 4 voxels from the peak ventral
mPFC activation observed in the current study (mean
Euclidean distance = 4.1 voxels, range = 1.1–6.9); by
comparison, the distance between the activation peaks
of the ventral and dorsal mPFC regions we observed was
greater than 12 voxels. Thus, despite considerable differ-
ences between the explicit self-referencing paradigms
that have been used in earlier research and the current
mentalizing task (e.g., no mention of similarity was made
in the current experiment until after scanning), both sets
of studies observed activity in highly overlapping regions
of the ventral mPFC.
Why then does the task of thinking about others
modulate cortical areas more commonly associated
with self-reflection? Simulation theory may provide
some preliminary answers to this question. Although
formulations of the simulation approach have generally
advanced few concrete empirical predictions, one im-
portant corollary of this viewpoint is that simulation is
only appropriate—and may therefore only be attempt-
ed—when one believes oneself to be an appropriate
model from which to understand another’s mind (i.e.,
when another person is believed to be sufficiently
similar to oneself). The close overlap between the
ventral region of the mPFC observed in the current
investigation and those previously reported during self-
referential processing is therefore consistent with two
predictions made by simulation theory: (i) people some-
times use self-knowledge to infer the mental states of
others and (ii) the extent of this simulation is dependent
on the degree to which self and other are perceived to
be similar. Importantly, because activity in the ventral
mPFC did not correlate with similarity ratings during a
nonmentalizing task (i.e., symmetry judgments), these
findings demonstrate that the ventral mPFC is not ubiq-
uitously sensitive to self/other similarity. Instead, similar-
ity appears to be especially relevant to tasks that require
perceivers to understand the mind of another person.
In the current study, two distinct regions of the mPFC
were associated with mentalizing. A dorsal region, sim-
ilar to the mPFC loci reported in several earlier inves-
tigations of social cognition (Mitchell, Macrae, et al.,
2004; Gallagher, Jack, et al., 2002; Mitchell, Heatherton,
et al., 2002; Goel et al., 1995), was differentially engaged
during mentalizing trials compared with nonmentalizing
trials. In addition, a ventral aspect of the mPFC, over-
lapping with loci reported in earlier studies of self-
referential processing (Macrae et al., 2004; Schmitz
et al., 2004; Vogeley et al., 2004; Johnson et al., 2002;
Kelley et al., 2002; Zysset et al., 2002; Gusnard et al.,
2001), distinguished between mentalizing and nonmen-
talizing trials as a function of target similarity, but was
only marginally more engaged by mentalizing than non-
mentalizing trials. Of course, because overall task com-
parisons included all trials regardless of perceived self/
other similarity (and most targets were judged by par-
ticipants to be relatively dissimilar), it is unsurprising
that this ventral region of the mPFC was not obtained
Table 4. Ventral mPFC Regions Observed in Earlier Studies of
Gusnard et al.
analysis of scenes:
emotional > perceptual
Johnson et al.
Kelley et al.
judgments of others
Macrae et al.
memory hits > misses
Schmitz et al.
Vogeley et al.
Zysett et al.
*Ventral-most extent of a number of mPFC loci obtained from the
comparison of judging whether a photograph made one feel pleasant
or unpleasant versus indicating whether a photograph depicted an
indoor or outdoor scene.
yCoordinates transformed from the atlas space of Talairach and
Tournoux (1988) to MNI space.
1310Journal of Cognitive NeuroscienceVolume 17, Number 8
from the direct contrast of mentalizing > nonmental-
izing (at our a priori statistical threshold). However,
when trials were segregated on the basis of perceived
self/other similarity, activity in the ventral mPFC was
indeed greater for mentalizing than for nonmentalizing
trials (Figure 1B, middle column), confirming its role in
Although the current results suggest that ventral
aspects of the mPFC contribute to the simulation of
other minds via self-reflection, little is known about the
role that such dorsal aspects of the mPFC play in social–
cognitive processing. The self/other similarity effects
observed in the ventral mPFC were not mirrored in
dorsal regions of the mPFC; indeed, the dorsal mPFC
demonstrated a trend towards an inverse correlation
with similarity ratings, such that mentalizing about dis-
similar others was associated with the highest response
in this region, whereas mentalizing about similar others
was associated with the lowest response in this region.
Although this inverse correlation only reached marginal
significance in the dorsal mPFC and should therefore be
interpreted with caution, we note that the dorsal mPFC
response during mentalizing trials as a function of sim-
ilarity differed significantly from that in the ventral
PFC (as evidenced by the significant Region ? Similarity
interaction, detailed above), suggesting a possible dis-
sociation between the social–cognitive contributions of
these two subregions of the mPFC. We speculate that,
whereas the ventral mPFC may guide the understanding
of others’ mental states through contemplation of one’s
own, the dorsal mPFC may instead instantiate more
universally applicable social–cognitive processes that
can aid mentalizing even when simulation is inappro-
priate (e.g., for dissimilar others). Indeed, the fact that
earlier studies have almost exclusively asked perceiv-
ers to mentalize about highly dissimilar others (e.g.,
Christopher Columbus, cartoon figures) or about an
unspecified person (e.g., an unseen opponent) may be
one reason that the dorsal mPFC has been associated
with social–cognitive tasks more frequently than ventral
subregions of the mPFC. One goal for future research
should be to further delineate the distinct cognitive
operations implemented by various subregions of the
mPFC during attempts to infer the mental states of other
One intriguing, but poorly understood, feature of
activity in both the dorsal and ventral mPFC consists of
the ‘‘direction’’ of change typically observed in these
regions. As in the current study, modulations in the
mPFC frequently occur as negative deflections in activ-
ity, or ‘‘deactivations’’ from the resting baseline state
(Gusnard & Raichle, 2001; Shulman et al., 1997). Al-
though relatively little is understood about their func-
tional significance, deactivations from baseline typically
occur in those cortical regions with the highest resting
metabolic rates (Raichle et al., 2001), prompting some
observers to suggest that such negative deflections
represent suspension from a default state of cognitive
processing that includes self-reflection (Gusnard &
Raichle, 2001). Interestingly, although activations above
resting baseline have occasionally been reported in
dorsal aspects of the mPFC (Mitchell, Macrae, et al.,
2004; Gusnard et al., 2001; Gusnard & Raichle, 2001),
the current study provides among the first observations
of true activations in the ventral mPFC (when mental-
izing about highly similar others), suggesting that activity
in this region may indeed increase over baseline when
social–cognitive processing is applied to people believed
to be similar to oneself.
As little is currently known about which particular
aspects of similarity determine the extent to which an
individual will simulate the experience of another per-
son (Gordon, 1992; Heal, 1986), self/other similarity was
indexed in an open-ended manner in the current study
(i.e., the dimension along which to make similarity judg-
ments was not specified). Presumably, the extent to
which a perceiver uses simulation to infer another per-
son’s mental states will depend on how ‘‘like-minded’’
the other person is considered to be (e.g., ‘‘does s/he
think like me?’’). This representation of conceptual
similarity may include abstract information about the
person, such as knowing that she was raised in the same
country or has a similar educational background as
oneself. However, in the absence of such semantic
knowledge about a person, perceivers may rely on other
potentially relevant dimensions—such as physical simi-
larity with the target—as a cue to or proxy for like-
mindedness. Although the results of the current study
provide evidence that perceived self/other similarity
modulates the neural activity associated with mental-
izing, additional research is required to clarify exactly
which dimensions of similarity are critical to the emer-
gence of this effect.
By providing evidence for one important prediction of
simulation theory—that understanding the mental states
of similar others can draw on self-reflection—the cur-
rent results contribute to an emerging literature provid-
ing empirical support for simulation accounts of mental
state attribution. Most notably, research on so-called
mirror neurons has repeatedly demonstrated that per-
ceiving the actions of others shares a neural basis with
actually performing those behaviors, both at the level of
analysis provided by human neuroimaging studies as
well as at the level of single neurons (Rizzolatti &
Craighero, 2004). Recently, Wicker et al. (2003) have
suggested that the correspondence between perception
and experience extends to some forms of affective
reactions by demonstrating that identical subregions of
the human insula are selectively engaged both by feeling
disgust and seeing others experience the same emotion.
Some observers have suggested that this coupling of
mere perception of others to actual, first-person experi-
ence may support a rudimentary system for simulating
the minds of other people (Gallese & Goldman, 1998).
Mitchell, Banaji, and Macrae1311
Simulation theory has frequently been portrayed as
mutually exclusive with ‘‘theory–theory’’ accounts of
mental state attribution, the notion that an understand-
ing of other people arises from combinatorial processing
of basic social rules [either akin to the way natural
language emerges from the operation of a grammatical
‘‘rule’’ (Stich & Nichols, 1992) or through explicit
hypothesis testing and theorizing during development
(Gopnik & Meltzoff, 1996; Gopnik & Wellman, 1992;
Perner, 1991)]. Our own view is that such either–or
theorizing may obscure an important aspect of social
thought; namely, that making inferences about the mind
of another person is a complex, shifting problem, the
solution of which depends on the specific information
that is available to perceivers in any given situation. For
example, although one can infer transient shifts in
another’s mental states using a host of visual and
auditory cues during one-on-one interactions (e.g., facial
expressions, body posture, speech prosody, etc.), one
must solve the same problem solely on the basis of
auditory input when conversing on the telephone. Quite
how one goes about drawing inferences about the
mental states of other people will therefore be deter-
mined in part by the availability of relevant cues. Indeed,
the observation in the current study that mentalizing
was associated with multiple brain regions—only one
of which was also sensitive to self/other similarity—
suggests that inferring the mental states of other people
may make use of a variety of different cognitive pro-
cesses. Although a substantive treatment of this issue is
well beyond the scope of the current article, we see no
reason that support for simulation accounts rules out
the possibility that, in the right circumstance, mental
state attribution may also be guided by other types of
information processing, including rule-based processing
(Heal, 1996; Perner, 1996).
Moreover, we note that the effects of perceived self/
other similarity on mentalizing may not be inconsistent
with all theory–theory views. Indeed, some formulations
of the theory–theory account do not insist that rule-
based processing of social information be cognitively
impenetrable (as would be the case for rule-based
processing of linguistic information in language). As
such, these versions of theory–theory (e.g., Botterhill,
1996; Gopnik & Meltzoff, 1996; Stone & Davies, 1996;
Gopnik & Wellman, 1992; Perner, 1991) leave open the
possibility that knowledge about the self could provide a
useful basis for theorizing about another person. For
example, such views might hypothesize that the quality
of the prediction of another person’s behavior will
depend on the accuracy of the particular content (rele-
vant beliefs, desires, etc.) that enters the theorizing
process, and that this content may be based more
strongly upon information about the self when the other
person is perceived to be similar, than when the other is
perceived to be dissimilar. We acknowledge that the
results of the current study cannot arbitrate between
simulation accounts of mentalizing and this account of
Finally, physical judgments of faces (‘‘how symmetri-
cal is this face?’’) were differentially associated with
activation in a set of brain regions that included the
bilateral inferotemporal cortex. Similar inferotemporal
regions have been implicated in a range of tasks that
require semantic knowledge about the attributes of
nonsocial stimuli, such as naming pictures of inanimate
objects (Chao, Haxby, & Martin, 1999; Martin, Wiggs,
Ungerleider, & Haxby, 1996). However, subsequent
neuroimaging research has suggested that accessing
comparable semantic knowledge about the psychologi-
cal terms used to describe other people does not engage
this region (Mason et al., 2004; Mitchell, Heatherton,
et al., 2002). The current results extend this work by
suggesting that the inferotemporal cortex may in fact
subserve some judgments of other people, at least those
that require attention to the physical aspects of a
person. In other words, the perception of other people
does not invariably engage the brain systems involved in
social cognition; rather, such processing can be sus-
pended when one’s judgment of another person does
not involve mental state attribution.
The ability to explain and predict other people’s
behavior through mental state attribution lies at the
very heart of human social cognition. Extending extant
work on this topic and consistent with the predictions of
simulation theory, the current investigation suggests
that self-reflection may represent one strategy for un-
derstanding the minds of others (either consciously or
unconsciously), at least when these individuals are
perceived to be similar to self. By demonstrating that
part of the system for understanding others draws
predictably on a system believed to play an important
role in understanding oneself, these data also address
the seemingly paradoxical observation that subregions
of the mPFC subserve both self-reflection and mental-
izing about others, suggesting that the ventral mPFC
may instantiate the self-reflective processing that guides
an agentic interpretation of others.
Participants were 18 (11 women) right-handed, native
English speakers with no history of neurological prob-
lems (mean age, 20 years; range, 17–25). Informed
consent was obtained in a manner approved by the
Committee for the Protection of Human Subjects at
Stimuli and Behavioral Procedure
Stimuli consisted of 480 black-and-white photographs of
faces collected from a number of publicly available face
1312 Journal of Cognitive NeuroscienceVolume 17, Number 8
databases. All targets were Caucasian adults (260 wom-
en, 220 men), photographed displaying a neutral facial
expression. Images were resized to a width of 7.6 cm and
height of 8.4 cm. During the acquisition of fMRI scans,
a randomly selected subset of 240 faces were each
presented once for 3 sec. Each face was immediately
preceded by a 1-sec presentation of one of two cues
(‘‘How pleased?’’ or ‘‘How symmetrical?’’) that indi-
cated, respectively, whether the mentalizing or non-
mentalizing task was to be performed on that trial. For
mentalizing trials, participants were instructed to judge
how pleased the person in the photograph seemed
to be to have his or her photograph taken. For non-
mentalizing trials, participants were instructed to judge
how symmetrical each face appeared. Participants used
a 4-point scale for both types of judgment. For each
participant, half the faces were randomly assigned to the
mentalizing condition and the remaining half to the
nonmentalizing condition. To optimize estimation of
the event-related fMRI response, trials were intermixed
in a pseudorandom order and separated by a variable
interstimulus interval (500–7500 msec) (Dale, 1999),
during which participants passively viewed a fixation
Approximately 30 min after completing the last func-
tional run, participants performed a similarity-rating
task. During the similarity-rating task, each of the faces
was presented again, and participants were asked to use
a 4-point scale to judge how similar they believed each
target was to themselves (1 = very dissimilar to me; 2 =
somewhat dissimilar to me; 3 = somewhat similar to me;
4 = very similar to me). Participants were not explicitly
instructed about the dimension on which to base their
Imaging was conducted using a 1.5-T GE Signa scanner.
Functional scanning used a gradient-echo, echo-planar
pulse sequence (TR, 2 sec; TE, 35 msec; 3.75 ? 3.75 in-
plane resolution). Participants completed three func-
tional runs of 200 acquisitions (25 axial slices; 4.5 mm
thick; 1 mm skip). Stimuli were projected onto a screen
at the end of the magnet bore that participants viewed
by way of a mirror mounted on the head coil. A pillow
and foam cushions were placed inside the head coil to
minimize head movements.
SPM99 software (Wellcome Department of Cognitive
Neurology, London, UK) was used for slice timing and
motion correction, normalization to the MN1305 stereo-
tactic space (interpolating to 3 mm3voxels), and spatial
smoothing (8-mm Gaussian kernel). Statistical analyses
were performed using the general linear model in which
the event-related design was modeled using a canonical
hemodynamic response function and covariates of no
interest (a session mean and a linear trend). In addition,
for each trial, the value of the participant’s subsequent
similarity rating was included as a linear parametric
modulator. That is, each trial was coded by both trial
type (mentalizing, nonmentalizing) as well as subse-
quent similarity rating, allowing us to identify regions
in which BOLD signal increases were associated with
increased target similarity, separately for mentalizing
and nonmentalizing trials. Because of the relative infre-
quency of ‘‘highly similar’’ responses, ratings of 3 and 4
were combined into a single level.
Comparisons of interest were implemented using a
random-effects model. First, tasks were compared di-
rectly, for example, mentalizing > nonmentalizing
( p < .001, 25 contiguous voxels, providing an overall
alpha level of p < .05, corrected). Second, the effect of
target similarity was examined parametrically by identi-
fying brain regions in which a significantly stronger
correlation was observed between the BOLD signal
and similarity ratings for mentalizing than for nonmen-
talizing trials ( p < .005, 10 contiguous voxels). Statistical
comparisons between conditions were conducted using
analysis-of-variance procedures on the parameter esti-
mates associated with each trial type.
We thank L. Davachi, W. Kelley, T. Laroche, A. Maril, M. Mason,
and A. Schein for advice and assistance.
Reprint requests should be sent to Jason Mitchell, Department
of Psychology, Harvard University, William James Hall 1568, 33
Kirkland Street, Cambridge, MA 02138, or via e-mail: jmitchel@
The data reported in this experiment have been deposited
with The fMRI Data Center archive (www.fmridc.org). The
accession number is 2-2004-1189A.
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