In a forthcoming paper, Dr Charlotte Hartwright, working with Professor Ian Apperly and Dr Peter Hansen, provides new understanding on the role of the rostral medial prefrontal cortex (rmPFC) in enabling us to represent the mind states of other social agents, termed having a ‘Theory of Mind’ (ToM).
There has been considerable debate in the social neuroscience community regarding the precise role of this brain region. Comprising a sizable part of the frontal lobe, brain imaging studies have shown that rmPFC is consistently involved in highly social tasks, like ToM. Interestingly, however, this brain region also seems to be involved in non-social tasks, for example, when asking participants to simply lie still and do nothing whilst having their brain scanned.
Researchers have speculated that rmPFC might be active when we reflect upon social phenomena; consequently, activation in this region when asked to lie still and do nothing might be because one is revisiting prior or forthcoming social engagements. Taking this idea a step further, the observation that rmPFC is engaged consistently during ToM tasks has led to speculation that this part of the brain is specialised for ToM, in terms of it being the core neural substrate for representing mental state content.
Using a single, tightly controlled experiment, Hartwright and colleagues were able to speak to this argument. They demonstrated that, contrary to prior suggestion, rmPFC is not involved in the cognitive process of representing mental states as such. Instead, this region was shown to support scenarios which attract rich, inferential processing, for example, when required to think beyond the constraints of the physical information provided. This finding resolves prior debate about how this region can appear to serve such seemingly disparate tasks.
Reference: Hartwright, C. E., Apperly, I. A., & Hansen, P. C. (in press). Representation, Control, or Reasoning? Distinct Functions for Theory of Mind within the Medial Prefrontal Cortex. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience. doi: 10.1162/jocn_a_00520