Understanding emotions in others engages specific brain regions in temporal and medial prefrontal cortices. These activations are often attributed to more general cognitive 'mentalizing' functions, associated with theory of mind and also necessary to represent people's non-emotional mental states, such as beliefs or intentions. Here, we directly investigated whether understanding emotional feelings recruit similar or specific brain systems, relative to other non-emotional mental states. We used functional magnetic resonance imaging with multivoxel pattern analysis in 46 volunteers to compare activation patterns in theory-of-mind tasks for emotions, relative to beliefs or somatic states accompanied with pain. We found a striking dissociation between the temporoparietal cortex, that exhibited a remarkable voxel-by-voxel pattern overlap between emotions and beliefs (but not pain), and the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex, that exhibited distinct (and yet nearby) patterns of activity during the judgment of beliefs and emotions in others. Pain judgment was instead associated with activity in the supramarginal gyrus, middle cingulate cortex and middle insular cortex. Our data reveal for the first time a functional dissociation within brain networks sub-serving theory of mind for different mental contents, with a common recruitment for cognitive and affective states in temporal regions, and distinct recruitment in prefrontal areas.
Keywords: emotional coding; mentalizing; multivariate pattern analysis; perspective taking; social cognition.
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