Towards a unifying neural theory of social cognition

Prog Brain Res. 2006;156:379-401. doi: 10.1016/S0079-6123(06)56021-2.


Humans can effortlessly understand a lot of what is going on in other peoples' minds. Understanding the neural basis of this capacity has proven quite difficult. Since the discovery of mirror neurons, a number of successful experiments have approached the question of how we understand the actions of others from the perspective of sharing their actions. Recently we have demonstrated that a similar logic may apply to understanding the emotions and sensations of others. Here, we therefore review evidence that a single mechanism (shared circuits) applies to actions, sensations and emotions: witnessing the actions, sensations and emotions of other individuals activates brain areas normally involved in performing the same actions and feeling the same sensations and emotions. We propose that these circuits, shared between the first (I do, I feel) and third person perspective (seeing her do, seeing her feel) translate the vision and sound of what other people do and feel into the language of the observers own actions and feelings. This translation could help understand the actions and feelings of others by providing intuitive insights into their inner life. We propose a mechanism for the development of shared circuits on the basis of Hebbian learning, and underline that shared circuits could integrate with more cognitive functions during social cognitions.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Brain / physiology
  • Cognition / physiology*
  • Emotions / physiology*
  • Empathy*
  • Humans
  • Models, Neurological
  • Psychological Theory*
  • Social Behavior*