Human temporal-parietal junction spontaneously tracks others' beliefs: A functional near-infrared spectroscopy study

Daniel C. Hyde, Mariana Aparicio Betancourt, Charline E. Simon

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Humans have the unique capacity to actively reflect on the thoughts, beliefs, and knowledge of others, but do we also track mental states spontaneously when observing other people? We asked this question by monitoring brain activity in belief-sensitive cortex using functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) during free-viewing of social videos. More specifically, we identified a portion of the right temporal-parietal junction (rTPJ) selective for mental state processing using an established, explicit theory of mind task, and then analyzed the brain response in that region of interest (ROI) during free-viewing of video clips involving people producing goal-directed actions. We found a significant increase in oxygenated hemoglobin concentration in our rTPJ ROI during free-viewing for all of our test videos. Activity in this region was further modulated by the extent to which the knowledge state, or beliefs, of the protagonist regarding the location of an object contrasted with the reality of where the object was hidden. Open-ended questioning suggested our participants were not explicitly focusing on belief states of the characters during free-viewing. Further analyses ruled out lower-level details of the video clips or general attentional differences between conditions as likely explanations for the results. As such, these results call into question the traditional characterization of theory of mind as a resource intensive, deliberate process, and, instead, support an emerging view of theory of mind as a foundation for, rather than the pinnacle of, human social cognition. Hum Brain Mapp 36:4831-4846, 2015.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)4831-4846
Number of pages16
JournalHuman Brain Mapping
Issue number12
StatePublished - Dec 1 2015


  • Cognition
  • Optical imaging
  • Temporal-parietal junction
  • Theory of mind

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Anatomy
  • Radiological and Ultrasound Technology
  • Radiology Nuclear Medicine and imaging
  • Neurology
  • Clinical Neurology


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