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Soc Neurosci. 2006;1(3-4):284-98. doi: 10.1080/17470910601000446.

Reading minds versus following rules: dissociating theory of mind and executive control in the brain.

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  • 1MIT, Cambridge, MA 02138, USA.


The false belief task commonly used in the study of theory of mind (ToM) requires participants to select among competing responses and inhibit prepotent responses, giving rise to three possibilities: (1) the false belief tasks might require only executive function abilities and there may be no domain-specific component; (2) executive control might be necessary for the emergence of ToM in development but play no role in adult mental state inferences; and (3) executive control and domain-specific ToM abilities might both be implicated. We used fMRI in healthy adults to dissociate these possibilities. We found that non-overlapping brain regions were implicated selectively in response selection and belief attribution, that belief attribution tasks recruit brain regions associated with response selection as much as well-matched control tasks, and that regions associated with ToM (e.g., the right temporo-parietal junction) were implicated only in the belief attribution tasks. These results suggest that both domain-general and domain-specific cognitive resources are involved in adult ToM.

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