Visualizing how one brain understands another: a PET study of theory of mind

Am J Psychiatry. 2003 Nov;160(11):1954-64. doi: 10.1176/appi.ajp.160.11.1954.


Objective: Theory of mind (TOM), or "mentalizing," refers to the ability to attribute mental states to self and others. Inferring what people are thinking and feeling is an important aspect of human social interaction, and it is also an important aspect of both psychiatric diagnosis and treatment. The authors conducted a positron emission tomography (PET) study to examine the neural substrates of TOM, using a task that mimics real-life social interaction.

Method: Thirteen healthy volunteers underwent [(15)O]H(2)O PET while performing an experimental task and a control task. During the experimental task they created a "story" about the mental state of a stranger whom they imagined encountering on a park bench. During the control task, they read aloud a story requiring no mental state attribution.

Results: The TOM task activated an extensive neural network that included the medial frontal cortex, the superior frontal cortex, the anterior and retrosplenial cingulate, and the anterior temporal pole; most of these activations were limited to the left hemisphere. In addition, the largest activation was in the contralateral right cerebellum, as well as the anterior vermis.

Conclusions: A language-based TOM task activated distributed brain regions that are important for representing mental states of the self and others, retrieving memory of personal experiences, and coordinating and monitoring the overall performance of the task. The activations in the medial frontal cortex replicate findings in previous TOM studies, while the activations in the cerebellum reinforce the growing evidence that the cerebellum performs cognitive functions in the human brain.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Awareness / physiology
  • Brain / diagnostic imaging
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Brain Mapping / methods
  • Female
  • Functional Laterality / physiology
  • Humans
  • Imagination / physiology*
  • Interpersonal Relations*
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • Mental Processes / physiology*
  • Models, Neurological
  • Nerve Net / diagnostic imaging
  • Nerve Net / physiology
  • Oxygen Radioisotopes
  • Self Concept
  • Social Behavior
  • Social Perception
  • Thinking / physiology
  • Tomography, Emission-Computed
  • Water


  • Oxygen Radioisotopes
  • Water