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Validating the Why/How contrast for functional MRI studies of Theory of Mind

Spunt, Robert P. and Adolphs, Ralph (2014) Validating the Why/How contrast for functional MRI studies of Theory of Mind. NeuroImage, 99 . pp. 301-311. ISSN 1053-8119.

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The ability to impute mental states to others, or Theory of Mind (ToM), has been the subject of hundreds of neuroimaging studies. Although reviews and meta-analyses of these studies have concluded that ToM recruits a coherent brain network, mounting evidence suggests that this network is an abstraction based on pooling data from numerous studies, most of which use different behavioral tasks to investigate ToM. Problematically, this means that no single behavioral task can be used to reliably measure ToM Network function as currently conceived. To make ToM Network function scientifically tractable, we need standardized tasks capable of reliably measuring specific aspects of its functioning. Here, our goal is to validate the Why/How Task for this purpose. Several prior studies have found that when compared to answering how-questions about another person's behavior, answering why-questions about that same behavior activates a network that is anatomically consistent with meta-analytic definitions of the ToM Network. In the version of the Why/How Task presented here, participants answer yes/no Why (e.g., Is the person helping someone?) and How (e.g., Is the person lifting something?) questions about pretested photographs of naturalistic human behaviors. Across three fMRI studies, we show that the task elicits reliable performance measurements and modulates a left-lateralized network that is consistently localized across studies. While this network is convergent with meta-analyses of ToM studies, it is largely distinct from the network identified by the widely used False-Belief Localizer, the most common ToM task. Our new task is publicly available, and can be used as an efficient functional localizer to provide reliable identification of single-subject responses in most regions of the network. Our results validate the Why/How Task, both as a standardized protocol capable of producing maximally comparable data across studies, and as a flexible foundation for programmatic research on the neurobiological foundations of a basic manifestation of human ToM.

Item Type:Article
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URLURL TypeDescription CentralArticle
Adolphs, Ralph0000-0002-8053-9692
Additional Information:© 2014 Elsevier Inc. Accepted 11 May 2014. Available online 17 May 2014. The Authors would like to acknowledge Mike Tyszka, Tim Armstrong, and the Caltech Brain Imaging Center for helpwith the neuroimaging; the Caltech Conte Center for Social Decision-Making for funding support; and two anonymous Reviewers for their comments.
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Subject Keywords:Social cognition; Theory of Mind; Action understanding; Attribution; False belief; Mentalizing; Localizer; fMRI
Record Number:CaltechAUTHORS:20140528-101112915
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Official Citation:Robert P. Spunt, Ralph Adolphs, Validating the Why/How contrast for functional MRI studies of Theory of Mind, NeuroImage, Volume 99, 1 October 2014, Pages 301-311, ISSN 1053-8119, (
Usage Policy:No commercial reproduction, distribution, display or performance rights in this work are provided.
ID Code:45932
Deposited By: Ruth Sustaita
Deposited On:28 May 2014 18:53
Last Modified:03 Oct 2019 06:38

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