Publications of Brass, M.

Are all beliefs equal? Implicit belief attributions recruiting core brain regions of Theory of Mind.

Humans possess efficient mechanisms to behave adaptively in social contexts. They ascribe goals and beliefs to others and use these for behavioural predictions. Researchers argued for two separate mental attribution systems: an implicit and automatic one involved in online interactions, and an explicit one mainly used in offline deliberations. However, the underlying mechanisms of these systems and the types of beliefs represented in the implicit system are still unclear. Using neuroimaging methods, we show that the right temporo-parietal junction and the medial prefrontal cortex, brain regions consistently found to be involved in explicit mental state reasoning, are also recruited by spontaneous belief tracking. While the medial prefrontal cortex was more active when both the participant and another agent believed an object to be at a specific location, the right temporo-parietal junction was selectively activated during tracking the false beliefs of another agent about the presence, but not the absence of objects. While humans can explicitly attribute to a conspecific any possible belief they themselves can entertain, implicit belief tracking seems to be restricted to beliefs with specific contents, a content selectivity that may reflect a crucial functional characteristic and signature property of implicit belief attribution.

Investigating action understanding: Inferential processes versus action simulation.

In our daily life, we continuously monitor others' behaviors and interpret them in terms of goals, intentions, and reasons. Despite their central importance for predicting and interpreting each other's actions, the functional mechanisms and neural circuits involved in action understanding remain highly controversial [1, 2]. Two alternative accounts have been advanced. Simulation theory [3] assumes that we understand actions by simulating the observed behavior through a direct matching process that activates the mirror-neuron circuit [4]. The alternative interpretive account [5] assumes that action understanding is based on specialized inferential processes activating brain areas with no mirror properties [1]. Although both approaches recognize the central role of contextual information in specifying action intentions, their respective accounts of this process differ in significant respects [1, 5-7]. Here, we investigated the role of context in action understanding by using functional brain imaging while participants observed an unusual action in implausible versus plausible contexts. We show that brain areas that are part of a network involved in inferential interpretive processes of rationalization and mentalization but that lack mirror properties are more active when the action occurs in an implausible context. However, no differential activation was found in the mirror network. Our findings support the assumption that action understanding in novel situations is primarily mediated by an inferential interpretive system rather than the mirror system.