Relational vs representational social cognitive processing: a coordinate-based meta-analysis of neuroimaging data

Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci. 2023 Feb 28;18(1):nsad003. doi: 10.1093/scan/nsad003.


The neurocognitive bases of social cognition have been framed in terms of representing others' actions through the mirror system and their mental states via the mentalizing network. Alongside representing another person's actions or mental states, however, social cognitive processing is also shaped by their (mis)match with one's own corresponding states. Here, we addressed the distinction between representing others' states through the action observation or mentalizing networks (i.e. representational processing) and detecting the extent to which such states align with one's own ones (i.e. relational processing, mediated by social conflict). We took a meta-analytic approach to unveil the neural bases of both relational and representational processing by focusing on previously reported brain activations from functional magnetic resonance imaging studies using false-belief and action observation tasks. Our findings suggest that relational processing for belief and action states involves, respectively, the left and right temporo-parietal junction, likely contributing to self-other differentiation. Moreover, distinct sectors of the posterior fronto-medial cortex support social conflict processing for belief and action, possibly through the inhibition of conflictual representations. These data might pave the way for further studies addressing social conflict as an important component of normal and pathological processing, and inform the design of rehabilitative treatments for social deficits.

Keywords: action observation; mentalizing; relational; representational; temporo-parietal junction.

Publication types

  • Meta-Analysis

MeSH terms

  • Brain / physiology
  • Brain Mapping
  • Cognition / physiology
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Neuroimaging
  • Theory of Mind* / physiology