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Published June 2015 | Published
Journal Article Open

The Default Mode of Human Brain Function Primes the Intentional Stance


Humans readily adopt an intentional stance to other people, comprehending their behavior as guided by unobservable mental states such as belief, desire, and intention. We used fMRI in healthy adults to test the hypothesis that this stance is primed by the default mode of human brain function present when the mind is at rest. We report three findings that support this hypothesis. First, brain regions activated by actively adopting an intentional rather than nonintentional stance to a social stimulus were anatomically similar to those demonstrating default responses to fixation baseline in the same task. Second, moment-to-moment variation in default activity during fixation in the dorsomedial PFC was related to the ease with which participants applied an intentional—but not nonintentional—stance to a social stimulus presented moments later. Finally, individuals who showed stronger dorsomedial PFC activity at baseline in a separate task were generally more efficient when adopting the intentional stance and reported having greater social skills. These results identify a biological basis for the human tendency to adopt the intentional stance. More broadly, they suggest that the brain's default mode of function may have evolved, in part, as a response to life in a social world.

Additional Information

© 2015 Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Posted Online April 30, 2015. We acknowledge Catherine Mulvenna for help with data collection, and Uta Frith, Nathan Spreng, Lucina Uddin, and Jamil Zaki for helpful comments on an earlier version of the paper.

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August 20, 2023
August 20, 2023