Research ArticleNEUROSCIENCE

Reading between the lines: Listener’s vmPFC simulates speaker cooperative choices in communication games

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Science Advances  03 Mar 2021:
Vol. 7, no. 10, eabe6276
DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.abe6276

Abstract

Humans have a remarkable ability to understand what is and is not being said by conversational partners. It has been hypothesized that listeners decode the intended meaning of a communicative signal by assuming speakers speak cooperatively, rationally simulating the speaker’s choice process and inverting it to recover the speaker’s most probable meaning. We investigated whether and how rational simulations of speakers are represented in the listener’s brain, by combining referential communication games with functional neuroimaging. We show that listeners’ ventromedial prefrontal cortex encodes the probabilistic inference of what a cooperative speaker should say given a communicative goal and context, even when such inferences are irrelevant for reference resolution. The listener’s striatum encodes the amount of update on intended meaning, consistent with inverting a simulated mental model. These findings suggest a neural generative mechanism, subserved by the frontal-striatal circuits, that underlies our ability to understand communicative and, more generally, social actions.

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