A Caltech Library Service

The Neural Basis of Understanding the Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals

Spunt, Robert P. and Ellsworth, Emily and Adolphs, Ralph (2017) The Neural Basis of Understanding the Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 12 (1). pp. 95-105. ISSN 1749-5016. PMCID PMC5390760.

[img] PDF - Published Version
See Usage Policy.

[img] MS Word - Supplemental Material
See Usage Policy.


Use this Persistent URL to link to this item:


Humans cannot help but attribute human emotions to non-human animals. Although such attributions are often regarded as gratuitous anthropomorphisms and held apart from the attributions humans make about each other’s internal states, they may be the product of a general mechanism for flexibly interpreting adaptive behavior. To examine this, we used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) in humans to compare the neural mechanisms associated with attributing emotions to humans and non-human animal behavior. Although undergoing fMRI, participants first passively observed the facial displays of human, non-human primate and domestic dogs, and subsequently judged the acceptability of emotional (e.g. ‘annoyed’) and facial descriptions (e.g. ‘baring teeth’) for the same images. For all targets, emotion attributions selectively activated regions in prefrontal and anterior temporal cortices associated with causal explanation in prior studies. These regions were similarly activated by both human and non-human targets even during the passive observation task; moreover, the degree of neural similarity was dependent on participants’ self-reported beliefs in the mental capacities of non-human animals. These results encourage a non-anthropocentric view of emotion understanding, one that treats the idea that animals have emotions as no more gratuitous than the idea that humans other than ourselves do.

Item Type:Article
Related URLs:
URLURL TypeDescription CentralArticle
Adolphs, Ralph0000-0002-8053-9692
Additional Information:© 2016 The Author. Published by Oxford University Press. Received July 15, 2016. Revision received October 11, 2016. Accepted October 17, 2016. First published online: November 1, 2016. The Authors would like to acknowledge Mike Tyszka and the Caltech Brain Imaging Center for help with the neuroimaging; the Della Martin Foundation for postdoctoral fellowship support to R.P.S.; Samuel P. and Frances Krown for sponsoring a Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship to E. E; and three anonymous reviewers for helpful comments. This work was supported in part by the National Institutes of Health (R01 MH080721-03 to R.A.). Additional funding was provided by the Caltech Conte Center the Neurobiology of Social Decision-Making (P50MH094258-01A1 to R.A.). Conflict of interest. None declared.
Funding AgencyGrant Number
Della Martin FoundationUNSPECIFIED
Samuel P. and Frances KrownUNSPECIFIED
NIHR01 MH080721-03
Subject Keywords:anthropomorphism; emotion attribution; face perception; social cognition
Issue or Number:1
PubMed Central ID:PMC5390760
Record Number:CaltechAUTHORS:20161107-085334344
Persistent URL:
Official Citation:Robert P. Spunt, Emily Ellsworth, Ralph Adolphs; The neural basis of understanding the expression of the emotions in man and animals. Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci 2017; 12 (1): 95-105. doi: 10.1093/scan/nsw161
Usage Policy:No commercial reproduction, distribution, display or performance rights in this work are provided.
ID Code:71759
Deposited By: Tony Diaz
Deposited On:07 Nov 2016 19:33
Last Modified:01 Apr 2020 23:15

Repository Staff Only: item control page