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Brain Scans Can Display Mental Models of Others

Fascinating new research discovers it is possible to tell who a person is thinking about by analyzing images of his or her brain.

Neuroscientists from Cornell University discovered that advanced imaging techniques can display the unique patterns of brain activation that occur when we think of others.

“When we looked at our data, we were shocked that we could successfully decode who our participants were thinking about based on their brain activity,” said Nathan Spreng, Ph.D.,¬†assistant professor of human development in Cornell’s College of Human Ecology.

Experts say that while everyone agrees that understanding and predicting the behavior of others is a key to managing life circumstances, little is known about how the brain actually models the enduring personality traits that may drive others’ behavior.

The ability to predict behaviors helps us anticipate how someone will act in a situation that may not have happened before.

In an effort to learn more about this innate ability, researchers asked 19 young adults to learn about the personalities of four people who differed on key personality traits.

Participants were given different scenarios (i.e. sitting on a bus when an elderly person gets on and there are no seats) and asked to imagine how a specified person would respond. During the task, their brains were scanned using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which measures brain activity by detecting changes in blood flow.

Investigators found that different patterns of brain activity in the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) were associated with each of the four different personalities.

In other words, which person was being imagined could be accurately identified based solely on the brain activation pattern.

The results suggest that the brain codes the personality traits of others in distinct brain regions and this information is integrated in the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) to produce an overall personality model used to plan social interactions, the authors say.

“Prior research has implicated the anterior mPFC in social cognition disorders such as autism and our results suggest people with such disorders may have an inability to build accurate personality models,” said Spreng.

“If further research bears this out, we may ultimately be able to identify specific brain activation biomarkers not only for diagnosing such diseases, but for monitoring the effects of interventions.”

Source: Cornell University

Brain Scans Can Display Mental Models of Others

Rick Nauert PhD

Rick Nauert, PhDDr. Rick Nauert has over 25 years experience in clinical, administrative and academic healthcare. He is currently an associate professor for Rocky Mountain University of Health Professionals doctoral program in health promotion and wellness. Dr. Nauert began his career as a clinical physical therapist and served as a regional manager for a publicly traded multidisciplinary rehabilitation agency for 12 years. He has masters degrees in health-fitness management and healthcare administration and a doctoral degree from The University of Texas at Austin focused on health care informatics, health administration, health education and health policy. His research efforts included the area of telehealth with a specialty in disease management.

APA Reference
Nauert PhD, R. (2018). Brain Scans Can Display Mental Models of Others. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 27, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 6 Mar 2013)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
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