Thinking about intentions

Neuroimage. 2005 Dec;28(4):787-96. doi: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2005.05.001. Epub 2005 Jun 17.


In this fMRI study, we investigated the convergence of underlying neural networks in thinking about a scenario involving one's own intentional action and its consequences and setting up and holding in mind an intention to act. A factorial design was employed comprising two factors: i. Causality (intentional or physical events) and ii. Prospective Memory (present or absent). In each condition, subjects answered questions about various hypothetical scenarios, which related either to the link between the subject's own intentions and consequential actions (Intentional Causality) or to the link between a natural, physical event and its consequences (Physical Causality). A prospective memory task was embedded in half the blocks. In this task, subjects were required to keep in mind an intention (to press a key on seeing a red stimulus background) whilst carrying out the ongoing Causality task. Answering questions about intentional causality versus physical causality activated a network of regions that have traditionally been associated with Theory of Mind, including the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC), the superior temporal sulcus and the temporal poles bilaterally. In addition, the precuneus bordering with posterior cingulate cortex, an area involved in self-awareness and self-related processing, was activated more when thinking about intentional causality. In the prospective memory task, activations were found in the right parietal cortex, frontopolar cortex (BA 10) and precuneus. Different subregions within the precuneus/posterior cingulate cortex were activated in both main effects of intentional causality and prospective memory. Therefore, the precuneus/posterior cingulate cortex subserves separately thinking about one's own intentions and consequent actions and bearing in mind an intention to make an action. Previous studies have shown that prospective memory, requiring the formation of an intention and the execution of a corresponding action, is associated with decreased activation in the dorsal mPFC, close to the region activated in Theory of Mind tasks. Here, we found that holding in mind an intention to act and at the same time thinking about an intentional action led to reduced activity in a dorsal section of the mPFC. This was a different region from a more anterior, inferior dorsal mPFC region that responded to intentional causality. This suggests that different regions of mPFC play different roles in thinking about intentions.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Cerebral Cortex / physiology*
  • Data Collection
  • Data Interpretation, Statistical
  • Female
  • Gyrus Cinguli / physiology
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Memory / physiology
  • Nerve Net / physiology*
  • Parietal Lobe / physiology
  • Prefrontal Cortex / physiology
  • Reaction Time / physiology
  • Self Concept
  • Temporal Lobe / physiology
  • Thinking / physiology*