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Reading between the lines: Listener's vmPFC simulates speaker cooperative choices in communication games

Mi, Qingtian and Wang, Cong and Camerer, Colin F. and Zhu, Lusha (2021) Reading between the lines: Listener's vmPFC simulates speaker cooperative choices in communication games. Science Advances, 7 (10). Art. No. eabe6276. ISSN 2375-2548. PMCID PMC7929509.

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Humans have a remarkable ability to understand what is and is not being said by conversational partners. It has been hypothesized that listeners decode the intended meaning of a communicative signal by assuming speakers speak cooperatively, rationally simulating the speaker’s choice process and inverting it to recover the speaker’s most probable meaning. We investigated whether and how rational simulations of speakers are represented in the listener’s brain, by combining referential communication games with functional neuroimaging. We show that listeners’ ventromedial prefrontal cortex encodes the probabilistic inference of what a cooperative speaker should say given a communicative goal and context, even when such inferences are irrelevant for reference resolution. The listener’s striatum encodes the amount of update on intended meaning, consistent with inverting a simulated mental model. These findings suggest a neural generative mechanism, subserved by the frontal-striatal circuits, that underlies our ability to understand communicative and, more generally, social actions.

Item Type:Article
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URLURL TypeDescription Materials CentralArticle Paper ItemData/Code
Mi, Qingtian0000-0002-5175-4780
Wang, Cong0000-0001-7997-4200
Camerer, Colin F.0000-0003-4049-1871
Zhu, Lusha0000-0001-8717-6356
Alternate Title:Listener's vmPFC simulates speaker choices when reading between the lines
Additional Information:© 2021 The Authors, some rights reserved; exclusive licensee American Association for the Advancement of Science. No claim to original U.S. Government Works. Distributed under a Creative Commons Attribution NonCommercial License 4.0 (CC BY-NC). Submitted 4 September 2020; Accepted 14 January 2021; Published 3 March 2021. We thank the National Center for Protein Sciences at Peking University and the high-performance computing platform at the Peking-Tsinghua Center for Life Sciences for facilitating data acquisition and computation. Funding: This work is supported by NSFC (32071095, 31671171, and 31630034 to L.Z.). Author contributions: Q.M. and L.Z. designed the study. Q.M. conducted the experiments. All authors analyzed the data and wrote the manuscript. The authors declare that they have no competing interests. Data and materials availability: All data needed to evaluate the conclusions in the paper are present in the paper and/or the Supplementary Materials. Code, behavioral, and imaging data are available at Open Science Framework ( Additional data related to this paper may be requested from the authors.
Group:Tianqiao and Chrissy Chen Institute for Neuroscience
Funding AgencyGrant Number
National Natural Science Foundation of China32071095
National Natural Science Foundation of China31671171
National Natural Science Foundation of China31630034
Issue or Number:10
PubMed Central ID:PMC7929509
Record Number:CaltechAUTHORS:20191010-145210905
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Official Citation:Q. Mi, C. Wang, C. F. Camerer, L. Zhu, Reading between the lines: Listener’s vmPFC simulates speaker cooperative choices in communication games. Sci. Adv. 7, eabe6276 (2021); DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.abe6276
Usage Policy:No commercial reproduction, distribution, display or performance rights in this work are provided.
ID Code:99223
Deposited By: Tony Diaz
Deposited On:10 Oct 2019 22:00
Last Modified:15 Mar 2021 22:32

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