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Published March 3, 2021 | Supplemental Material + Submitted + Published
Journal Article Open

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


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.

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 (https://osf.io/jktuq/). Additional data related to this paper may be requested from the authors.

Attached Files

Published - eabe6276.full.pdf

Submitted - 800359.full.pdf

Supplemental Material - abe6276_SM.pdf


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August 20, 2023
October 20, 2023