Current theories in cognitive neuroscience assume that internal simulation, i.e., the reproduction of brain activity underlying another person's inner state and behaviour in the perceiver's brain, plays an important role in understanding others. Here we test the prediction that common neural activity during facial communication of affect leads to interpersonal understanding. Six female senders and 30 male observers (six of which were the senders romantic partners and 24 unknown others) underwent pseudo-hyperscanning fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging). Senders were asked to submerge themselves into emotional situations and to facially express their emotional feelings as they arose to the observer. Observers were uninformed about the sender's task and were asked to watch and feel with the sender. Using between-brain spatial correlation analysis we found that mere emotion recognition was not closely related to the degree to which an observer reproduced the sender's spatial pattern of neural activity in his own brain. However, in runs in which the observer had correctly identified the communicated emotion, between-brain similarity of spatial patterns of neural activity predicted the degree to which the observer experienced a similar emotional feeling as the sender. This effect remained significant when differences between romantic partners and unknown others and sender effects were removed. These findings are in line with previous studies that suggest that facial emotion recognition, at least at a coarse level, might be supported by neural processes that do not rely on internal simulation. Shared affective experiences, on the other hand, might arise from common neural activity between the sender's and the observer's brain, leading to a “shared space of affect” which might be critical for the flow of more subtle affective information between brains.
Research Areas and Centers
- Academic Focus: Center for Brain, Behavior and Metabolism (CBBM)