Mentalizing under uncertainty: dissociated neural responses to ambiguous and unambiguous mental state inferences

Cereb Cortex. 2010 Feb;20(2):404-10. doi: 10.1093/cercor/bhp109. Epub 2009 May 28.


The ability to read the minds of others (i.e., to mentalize) requires that perceivers understand a wide range of different kinds of mental states, including not only others' beliefs and knowledge but also their feelings, desires, and preferences. Moreover, although such inferences may occasionally rely on observable features of a situation, perceivers more typically mentalize under conditions of "uncertainty," in which they must generate plausible hypotheses about a target's mental state from ambiguous or otherwise underspecified information. Here, we use functional neuroimaging to dissociate the neural bases of these 2 distinct social-cognitive challenges: 1) mentalizing about different types of mental states (beliefs vs. preferences) and 2) mentalizing under conditions of varying ambiguity. Although these 2 aspects of mentalizing have typically been confounded in earlier research, we observed a double dissociation between the brain regions sensitive to type of mental state and ambiguity. Whereas ventral and dorsal aspects of medial prefrontal cortex responded more during ambiguous than unambiguous inferences regardless of the type of mental state, the right temporoparietal junction was sensitive to the distinction between beliefs and preferences irrespective of certainty. These results underscore the emerging consensus that, rather than comprising a single mental operation, social cognition makes flexible use of different processes as a function of the particular demands of the social context.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Association
  • Brain / anatomy & histology
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Brain Mapping
  • Cognition / physiology*
  • Culture
  • Dominance, Cerebral / physiology
  • Empathy / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Language
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • Neuropsychological Tests
  • Parietal Lobe / anatomy & histology
  • Parietal Lobe / physiology
  • Prefrontal Cortex / anatomy & histology
  • Prefrontal Cortex / physiology
  • Social Behavior*
  • Speech Perception / physiology
  • Temporal Lobe / anatomy & histology
  • Temporal Lobe / physiology
  • Theory of Mind / physiology*
  • Verbal Behavior / physiology
  • Young Adult