Interaction vs. observation: distinctive modes of social cognition in human brain and behavior? A combined fMRI and eye-tracking study

Front Hum Neurosci. 2012 Dec 19;6:331. doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2012.00331. eCollection 2012.


Human cognition has usually been approached on the level of individual minds and brains, but social interaction is a challenging case. Is it best thought of as a self-contained individual cognitive process aiming at an "understanding of the other," or should it rather be approached as an collective, inter-personal process where individual cognitive components interact on a moment-to-moment basis to form coupled dynamics? In a combined fMRI and eye-tracking study we directly contrasted these models of social cognition. We found that the perception of situations affording social contingent responsiveness (e.g., someone offering or showing you an object) elicited activations in regions of the right posterior temporal sulcus and yielded greater pupil dilation corresponding to a model of coupled dynamics (joint action). In contrast, the social-cognitive perception of someone "privately" manipulating an object elicited activation in medial prefrontal cortex, the right inferior frontal gyrus and right inferior parietal lobus, regions normally associated with Theory of Mind and with the mirror neuron system. Our findings support a distinction in social cognition between social observation and social interaction, and demonstrate that simple ostensive cues may shift participants' experience, behavior, and brain activity between these modes. The identification of a distinct, interactive mode has implications for research on social cognition, both in everyday life and in clinical conditions.

Keywords: brain imaging; coupled dynamics; joint action; mirror neuron system; social interaction; theory of mind.