The representational structure of mental states generalizes across target people and stimulus modalities

Neuroimage. 2021 Sep:238:118258. doi: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2021.118258. Epub 2021 Jun 9.


Each individual experiences mental states in their own idiosyncratic way, yet perceivers can accurately understand a huge variety of states across unique individuals. How do they accomplish this feat? Do people think about their own anger in the same ways as another person's anger? Is reading about someone's anxiety the same as seeing it? Here, we test the hypothesis that a common conceptual core unites mental state representations across contexts. Across three studies, participants judged the mental states of multiple targets, including a generic other, the self, a socially close other, and a socially distant other. Participants viewed mental state stimuli in multiple modalities, including written scenarios and images. Using representational similarity analysis, we found that brain regions associated with social cognition expressed stable neural representations of mental states across both targets and modalities. Together, these results suggest that people use stable models of mental states across different people and contexts.

Keywords: Mentalizing; Representational similarity analysis; Social cognition; fMRI.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Brain / diagnostic imaging*
  • Emotions / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Image Processing, Computer-Assisted
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • Social Cognition*
  • Theory of Mind / physiology*
  • Young Adult