As Harper Lee tells us in To Kill a Mockingbird, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb in his skin and walk around in it.” Classic theories in social psychology argue that this purported process of social simulation provides the foundations for self-regulation. In light of this, we investigated the neural processes whereby humans may regulate their affective responses to an event by simulating the way others would respond to it. Our results suggest that during perspective-taking, behavioral and neural signatures of negative affect indeed mimic the presumed affective state of others. Furthermore, the anterior medial prefrontal cortex—a region implicated in mental state inference—may orchestrate this affective simulation process.Abstract
Can taking the perspective of other people modify our own affective responses to stimuli? To address this question, we examined the neurobiological mechanisms supporting the ability to take another person’s perspective and thereby emotionally experience the world as they would. We measured participants’ neural activity as they attempted to predict the emotional responses of two individuals that differed in terms of their proneness to experience negative affect. Results showed that behavioral and neural signatures of negative affect (amygdala activity and a distributed multivoxel pattern reflecting affective negativity) simulated the presumed affective state of the target person. Furthermore, the anterior medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC)—a region implicated in mental state inference—exhibited a perspective-dependent pattern of connectivity with the amygdala, and the multivoxel pattern of activity within the mPFC differentiated between the two targets. We discuss the implications of these findings for research on perspective-taking and self-regulation.