Activity in right temporo-parietal junction is not selective for theory-of-mind

Cereb Cortex. 2008 Feb;18(2):262-71. doi: 10.1093/cercor/bhm051. Epub 2007 Jun 5.


Recent researchers have suggested that a region of right temporo-parietal junction (RTPJ) selectively subserves the attribution of beliefs to other people (Saxe R, Kanwisher N. 2003. People thinking about thinking people: fMRI investigations of theory of mind. NeuroImage. 19:1835-1842; Saxe R, Powell LJ. 2006. It's the thought that counts: specific brain regions for one component of theory of mind. Psychol Sci. 17:692-699; Saxe R, Wexler A. 2005. Making sense of another mind: the role of the right temporo-parietal junction. Neuropsychologia. 43:1391-1399). At the same time, a similar RTPJ region has been observed repeatedly in a variety of nonsocial tasks that require participants to redirect attention to task-relevant stimuli (e.g., Corbetta M, Shulman GL. 2002. Control of goal-directed and stimulus-driven attention in the brain. Nat Rev Neurosci. 3:201-215; Serences JT, Shomstein S, Leber AB, Golay X, Egeth HE, Yantis S. 2005. Coordination of voluntary and stimulus-driven attentional control in human cortex. Psychol Sci. 16:114-122). However, because these 2 sets of tasks have never been compared within the same participants, it remains unclear whether these observations refer to the exact same region of RTPJ or may instead involve neighboring regions with distinct functional profiles. To test the claim that there is a region of RTPJ selective for belief attribution, the current study used functional neuroimaging to examine the extent to which cortical loci identified by a "theory-of-mind localizer" also distinguish between trials on a target detection task that varied demands to reorient attention (i.e., a version of the "Posner cueing task"). Results were incompatible with claims of RTPJ selectivity for mental state attribution. Regardless of whether regions were defined from group analyses or were individually tailored for each participant, RTPJ activity was also modulated by the nonsocial attentional task. The overlap between theory-of-mind and attentional reorienting suggests the need for new accounts of RTPJ function that integrate across these disparate task comparisons.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Attention / physiology*
  • Brain Mapping
  • Cues
  • Culture*
  • Empathy
  • Evoked Potentials / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Intention
  • Models, Neurological*
  • Nerve Net / physiology*
  • Neural Pathways / physiology
  • Parietal Lobe / physiology*
  • Psychological Theory
  • Temporal Lobe / physiology*