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Neuroimage. 2010 Jan 15;49(2):1717-27. doi: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2009.09.065. Epub 2009 Oct 3.

Tease or threat? Judging social interactions from bodily expressions.

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Cognitive and Affective Neurosciences Laboratory, Tilburg University, Tilburg, The Netherlands.


We casually observe many interactions that do not really concern us. Yet sometimes we need to be able to rapidly appraise whether an interaction between two people represents a real threat for one of them rather than an innocent tease. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging, we investigated whether small differences in the body language of two interacting people are picked up by the brain even if observers are performing an unrelated task. Fourteen participants were scanned while watching 3-s movies (192 trials and 96 scrambles) showing a male person either threatening or teasing a female one. In one task condition, observers categorized the interaction as threatening or teasing, and in the other, they monitored randomly appearing dots and categorized the color. Our results clearly show that right amygdala responds more to threatening than to teasing situations irrespective of the observers' task. When observers' attention is not explicitly directed to the situation, this heightened amygdala activation goes together with increased activity in body sensitive regions in fusiform gyrus, extrastriate body area-human motion complex and superior temporal sulcus and is associated with a better behavioral performance of the participants during threatening situations. In addition, regions involved in action observation (inferior frontal gyrus, temporoparietal junction, and inferior parietal lobe) and preparation (premotor, putamen) show increased activation for threat videos. Also regions involved in processing moral violations (temporoparietal junction, hypothalamus) reacted selectively to the threatening interactions. Taken together, our results show which brain regions react selectively to witnessing a threatening interaction even if the situation is not attended because the observers perform an unrelated task.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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