Friday, August 20, 2010

Watching our brains perceive the intentions of others.

Two interesting papers on  people playing economic or cooperation games during MRI imaging that reveals activations flitting about different areas of the frontal cortex as different inferences and judgments about other game participants are made:

First, from Dolan's group, on inference of belief:
Humans have the arguably unique ability to understand the mental representations of others. For success in both competitive and cooperative interactions, however, this ability must be extended to include representations of others' belief about our intentions, their model about our belief about their intentions, and so on. We developed a "stag hunt" game in which human subjects interacted with a computerized agent using different degrees of sophistication (recursive inferences) and applied an ecologically valid computational model of dynamic belief inference. We show that rostral medial prefrontal (paracingulate) cortex, a brain region consistently identified in psychological tasks requiring mentalizing, has a specific role in encoding the uncertainty of inference about the other's strategy. In contrast, dorsolateral prefrontal cortex encodes the depth of recursion of the strategy being used, an index of executive sophistication. These findings reveal putative computational representations within prefrontal cortex regions, supporting the maintenance of cooperation in complex social decision making.
The second, from Cooper et al., on judging the intentions of others:
In social decision-making, people care both about others' outcomes and their intentions to help or harm. How the brain integrates representations of others' intentions with their outcomes, however, is unknown. In this study, participants inferred others' decisions in an economic game during functional magnetic resonance imaging. When the game was described in terms of donations, ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPFC) activation increased for inferring generous play and decreased for inferring selfish play. When the game was described in terms of individual savings, however, VMPFC activation did not distinguish between strategies. Distinct medial prefrontal regions also encoded consistency with situational norms. A separate network, including right temporoparietal junction and parahippocampal gyrus, was more activated for inferential errors in the donation than in the savings condition. These results demonstrate that neural responses to others' generosity or selfishness depend not only on their actions but also on their perceived intentions.

Summary highlights of Cooper et al.:
- Response to others in identical economic games depends on game description
- Liking, VMPFC distinguish generous from selfish play in “group donation” game only
- Distinct MPFC regions encode consistency with norms regardless of outcome
- Right TPJ and MTL are more activated by learning errors in donation game

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