Mitchell's laboratory at Harvard has shed light on two traditionally opposed hypotheses about how we infer the mental states of others. Simulation theory posits that we use our own experience to infer the experience of others. It is known that when we observe actions and emotions in others, regions in our own brain that would generate those actions or emotions become active and mirror what we are observing. Theory of mind, on the other hand, holds that we use abstract rules about how people behave to infer the mental states of others.
Mitchell et al used functional neuroimaging to examine how perceivers make mental state inferences when such self-other overlap can be assumed (when the other is similar to oneself) and when it cannot (when the other is dissimilar from oneself). "We observed a double dissociation such that mentalizing about a similar other engaged a region of ventral mPFC (medial prefrontal cortex) linked to self-referential thought, whereas mentalizing about a dissimilar other engaged a more dorsal subregion of mPFC. "
Legend: Division of labor. Different regions of prefrontal cortex fire up when people ponder the mental states of others perceived as similar (blue) or dissimilar (red) to themselves. Credit: Jason Mitchell.
"The overlap between judgments of self and similar others suggests the plausibility of "simulation" accounts of social cognition, which posit that perceivers can use knowledge about themselves to infer the mental states of others." And, the activation of dorsal mPFC during thinking about dissimilar others might correspond to more rule bound theory of mind operations.