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J Cogn Neurosci. 2011 Aug;23(8):1911-20. doi: 10.1162/jocn.2010.21574. Epub 2010 Sep 17.

Distinct neural systems involved in agency and animacy detection.

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Dipartimento di Psicologia, Università di Bologna, Viale C. Berti-Pichat, 5, 40126 Bologna, Italy.


We designed an fMRI experiment comparing perception of human faces and robotic faces producing emotional expressions. The purpose of our experiment was to investigate engagement of different parts of the social brain by viewing these animate and inanimate agents. Both human and robotic face expressions evoked activity in face-responsive regions in the fusiform gyrus and STS and in the putative human mirror neuron system. These results suggest that these areas mediate perception of agency, independently of whether the agents are living or not. By contrast, the human faces evoked stronger activity than did robotic faces in the medial pFC and the anterior temporal cortex--areas associated with the representation of others' mental states (theory of mind), whereas robotic faces evoked stronger activity in areas associated with perception of objects and mechanical movements. Our data demonstrate that the representation of the distinction between animate and inanimate agents involves areas that participate in attribution of mental stance.

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