Theory of mind for processing unexpected events across contexts

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Theory of mind, or mental state reasoning, may be particularly useful for making sense of unexpected events. Here, we investigated unexpected behavior across both social and non-social contexts in order to characterize the precise role of theory of mind in processing unexpected events. We used functional magnetic resonance imaging to examine how people respond to unexpected outcomes when initial expectations were based on (i) an object’s prior behavior, (ii) an agent’s prior behavior and (iii) an agent’s mental states. Consistent with prior work, brain regions for theory of mind were preferentially recruited when people first formed expectations about social agents vs non-social objects. Critically, unexpected vs expected outcomes elicited greater activity in dorsomedial prefrontal cortex, which also discriminated in its spatial pattern of activity between unexpected and expected outcomes for social events. In contrast, social vs non-social events elicited greater activity in precuneus across both expected and unexpected outcomes. Finally, given prior information about an agent’s behavior, unexpected vs expected outcomes elicited an especially robust response in right temporoparietal junction, and the magnitude of this difference across participants correlated negatively with autistic-like traits. Together, these findings illuminate the distinct contributions of brain regions for theory of mind for processing unexpected events across contexts.

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