What is the relationship between your own private awareness of events and the awareness that you intuitively attribute to the people around you? In this study, a region of the human cerebral cortex was active when people attributed sensory awareness to someone else. Furthermore, when that region of cortex was temporarily disrupted, the person’s own sensory awareness was disrupted. The findings suggest a fundamental connection between private awareness and social cognition.
This study tested the possible relationship between reported visual awareness (“I see a visual stimulus in front of me”) and the social attribution of awareness to someone else (“That person is aware of an object next to him”). Subjects were tested in two steps. First, in an fMRI experiment, subjects were asked to attribute states of awareness to a cartoon face. Activity associated with this task was found bilaterally within the temporoparietal junction (TPJ) among other areas. Second, the TPJ was transiently disrupted using single-pulse transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS). When the TMS was targeted to the same cortical sites that had become active during the social attribution task, the subjects showed symptoms of visual neglect in that their detection of visual stimuli was significantly affected. In control trials, when TMS was targeted to nearby cortical sites that had not become active during the social attribution task, no significant effect on visual detection was found. These results suggest that there may be at least some partial overlap in brain mechanisms that participate in the social attribution of sensory awareness to other people and in attributing sensory awareness to oneself.