Influence of emotional complexity on the neural substrates of affective theory of mind

Hum Brain Mapp. 2020 Jan;41(1):139-149. doi: 10.1002/hbm.24794. Epub 2019 Sep 30.


Affective theory of mind (ToM) depends on both the decoding of emotional expressions and the reasoning on emotional mental states from social situations. While previous studies characterized the neural substrates underlying these processes, it remains unclear whether the nature of the emotional state inferred from others can influence the brain activation associated with affective ToM. In the present study, we focused on two types of emotions: basic emotions (BEs) (e.g., anger and surprise), which are innate and universal and self-conscious emotions (e.g., pride and embarrassment), which correspond to a special class of emotions involving the self and including a representation of one's relative reactions to internal and external standards. Specifically, we used an ecological functional MRI paradigm, on 21 healthy young subjects, to compare brain activations during the decoding of and the reasoning on others' self-conscious, basic and neutral mental states. Our results showed that compared to neutral states, the inference of self-conscious and basic emotional states from others elicited more activation in several core regions of affective ToM. Direct comparisons between emotional conditions revealed more activation for self-conscious than BEs in the right temporoparietal junction during the reasoning process and in left middle occipital regions during the decoding process. Further analyses using a localizer task showed that the extrastriate body area was more recruited for decoding others' self-conscious versus BEs, which emphasize the importance of body clues to properly infer these emotions. Using an original task allowing for an ecological assessment of the affective ToM, these results demonstrate that the complexity of the emotion inferred to others can influence the recruitment of ToM network. This study also validates the use of our task as an ecological tool to assess the affective ToM, constituting an avenue for the characterization of ToM impairments in neurological conditions.

Keywords: basic emotions; fMRI; self-conscious emotions; temporoparietal junction; theory of mind.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Cerebral Cortex / diagnostic imaging
  • Cerebral Cortex / physiology*
  • Ego*
  • Emotions / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Social Perception*
  • Theory of Mind / physiology*
  • Visual Perception / physiology*
  • Young Adult