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PLoS One. 2014 Dec 17;9(12):e113885. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0113885. eCollection 2014.

Is this car looking at you? How anthropomorphism predicts fusiform face area activation when seeing cars.

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Center for Lifespan Psychology, Max Planck Institute for Human Development, Lentzeallee 94, 14195, Berlin, Germany.
Behavioural Science Institute, Radboud University of Nijmegen, P. O. Box 9104, 6500 HE, Nijmegen, Netherlands; Department of Psychology, Ludwig-Maximilian University, Leopoldstrasse 13, 80802, München, Germany.
Clinic for Psychiatry and Psychotherapy, Charité University Medicine, St. Hedwig-Krankenhaus, Große Hamburger Straße 5-11, 10115, Berlin, Germany; Clinic and Policlinic for Psychiatry and Psychotherapy, University Clinic Hamburg-Eppendorf, Martinistraße 52, 20246, Hamburg, Germany.


Anthropomorphism encompasses the attribution of human characteristics to non-living objects. In particular the human tendency to see faces in cars has long been noticed, yet its neural correlates are unknown. We set out to investigate whether the fusiform face area (FFA) is associated with seeing human features in car fronts, or whether, the higher-level theory of mind network (ToM), namely temporoparietal junction (TPJ) and medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC) show a link to anthropomorphism. Twenty participants underwent fMRI scanning during a passive car-front viewing task. We extracted brain activity from FFA, TPJ and MPFC. After the fMRI session participants were asked to spontaneously list adjectives that characterize each car front. Five raters judged the degree to which each adjective can be applied as a characteristic of human beings. By means of linear mixed models we found that the implicit tendency to anthropomorphize individual car fronts predicts FFA, but not TPJ or MPFC activity. The results point to an important role of FFA in the phenomenon of ascribing human attributes to non-living objects. Interestingly, brain regions that have been associated with thinking about beliefs and mental states of others (TPJ, MPFC) do not seem to be related to anthropomorphism of car fronts.

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