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Cogn Neuropsychol. 2003;20(3-6):575-87.

Neural foundations for understanding social and mechanical concepts.

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National Institute of Mental Health, Bethesda, USA.


Motivated by neuropsychological investigations of category-specific impairments, many functional brain imaging studies have found distinct patterns of neural activity associated with different object categories. However, the extent to which these category-related activation patterns reflect differences in conceptual representation remains controversial. To investigate this issue, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) was used to record changes in neural activity while subjects interpreted animated vignettes composed of simple geometric shapes in motion. Vignettes interpreted as conveying social interactions elicited a distinct and distributed pattern of neural activity, relative to vignettes interpreted as mechanical actions. This neural system included regions in posterior temporal cortex associated with identifying human faces and other biological objects. In contrast, vignettes interpreted as conveying mechanical actions resulted in activity in posterior temporal lobe sites associated with identifying manipulable objects such as tools. Moreover, social, but not mechanical, interpretations elicited activity in regions implicated in the perception and modulation of emotion (right amygdala and ventromedial prefrontal cortex). Perceiving and understanding social and mechanical concepts depends, in part, on activity in distinct neural networks. Within the social domain, the network includes regions involved in processing and storing information about the form and motion of biological objects, and in perceiving, expressing, and regulating affective responses.

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