Sensorimotor Network Crucial for Inferring Amusement from Smiles

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Abstract

Understanding whether another's smile reflects authentic amusement is a key challenge in social life, yet, the neural bases of this ability have been largely unexplored. Here, we combined transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) with a novel empathic accuracy (EA) task to test whether sensorimotor and mentalizing networks are critical for understanding another's amusement. Participants were presented with dynamic displays of smiles and explicitly requested to infer whether the smiling individual was feeling authentic amusement or not. TMS over sensorimotor regions representing the face (i.e., in the inferior frontal gyrus (IFG) and ventral primary somatosensory cortex (SI)), disrupted the ability to infer amusement authenticity from observed smiles. The same stimulation did not affect performance on a nonsocial task requiring participants to track the smiling expression but not to infer amusement. Neither TMS over prefrontal and temporo-parietal areas supporting mentalizing, nor peripheral control stimulations, affected performance on either task. Thus, motor and somatosensory circuits for controlling and sensing facial movements are causally essential for inferring amusement from another's smile. These findings highlight the functional relevance of IFG and SI to amusement understanding and suggest that EA abilities may be grounded in sensorimotor networks for moving and feeling the body.

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