Necessary, yet dissociable contributions of the insular and ventromedial prefrontal cortices to norm adaptation: computational and lesion evidence in humans

J Neurosci. 2015 Jan 14;35(2):467-73. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.2906-14.2015.


Social norms and their enforcement are fundamental to human societies. The ability to detect deviations from norms and to adapt to norms in a changing environment is therefore important to individuals' normal social functioning. Previous neuroimaging studies have highlighted the involvement of the insular and ventromedial prefrontal (vmPFC) cortices in representing norms. However, the necessity and dissociability of their involvement remain unclear. Using model-based computational modeling and neuropsychological lesion approaches, we examined the contributions of the insula and vmPFC to norm adaptation in seven human patients with focal insula lesions and six patients with focal vmPFC lesions, in comparison with forty neurologically intact controls and six brain-damaged controls. There were three computational signals of interest as participants played a fairness game (ultimatum game): sensitivity to the fairness of offers, sensitivity to deviations from expected norms, and the speed at which people adapt to norms. Significant group differences were assessed using bootstrapping methods. Patients with insula lesions displayed abnormally low adaptation speed to norms, yet detected norm violations with greater sensitivity than controls. Patients with vmPFC lesions did not have such abnormalities, but displayed reduced sensitivity to fairness and were more likely to accept the most unfair offers. These findings provide compelling computational and lesion evidence supporting the necessary, yet dissociable roles of the insula and vmPFC in norm adaptation in humans: the insula is critical for learning to adapt when reality deviates from norm expectations, and that the vmPFC is important for valuation of fairness during social exchange.

Keywords: brain lesion; computational modeling; decision-making; insular cortex; social norms; ventromedial prefrontal cortex.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Psychological*
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Brain Damage, Chronic / physiopathology*
  • Brain Damage, Chronic / psychology
  • Case-Control Studies
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Models, Neurological
  • Organ Specificity
  • Prefrontal Cortex / physiology*
  • Prefrontal Cortex / physiopathology
  • Social Norms*