Summary: A new study provides insight into basic features of human cognition; how we understand and evaluate other creatures.
Assessing whether a fluffy bunny or a giant spider poses a threat to our safety happens automatically. New research suggests the same brain areas may be involved in both detecting threats posed by animals and evaluating other humans’ intentions. The study, published in the May 11 issue of the Journal of Neuroscience, offers insight into a basic feature of human cognition: how we understand and evaluate other creatures.
“The idea that animals may be processed in a similar way [to humans] and may piggyback on regions of the brain that have been implicated in social cognition suggests that those regions … are multipurpose,” said study author Andrew Connolly of Dartmouth College.
Previously Connolly’s research group found that hierarchical classes of animals (say, bugs vs. mammals) are represented in an area of the brain called the lateral occipital complex, a region involved in object perception and recognition. What was not known, however, was which brain regions process information about an animal’s “dangerousness.”
To investigate this, the researchers scanned volunteers’ brains while they viewed pictures of bugs, reptiles, and mammals. Half of the animals depicted were classified as “low threat,” such as butterflies and rabbits, and half were “high threat,” such as snakes and cougars. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), the researchers determined which areas of the brain were active when participants viewed bugs, reptiles, and mammals, and when they viewed low- and high-threat animals. Researchers used these activity patterns to map how two kinds of information — taxonomic class and threat — are encoded in the brain.
As before, they found taxonomic class was represented in the lateral occipital complex. Surprisingly, a different area of the brain represented threat. This area, called the superior temporal sulcus, is a fold in brain tissue running just above the ear, and previous research has implicated the region in understanding facial expressions and deciphering others’ intentions. The researchers speculate that evaluating other humans and evaluating threats posed by animals may be related functions.
Nikolaus Kriegeskorte, a neuroscientist at the University of Cambridge who studies visual object recognition and was not involved in the study, said this is interesting basic science. “Knowing what parts of the brain are involved in social cognition and how information processing works is relevant to our understanding of human brains, minds, and cultures.”
The researchers are planning future studies to examine how activity in these brain networks changes over time. The present study used fMRI, which measures changes in blood flow as a proxy of neural activity, a measure that is slow and inadequate for understanding temporal relationships. To address this, the researchers plan to incorporate electrical recordings of brain activity in their studies.
Source: Emily Ortman – SFN Image Source: This NeuroscienceNews.com image is in the public domain. Original Research:Abstract for “How the Human Brain Represents Perceived Dangerousness or “Predacity” of Animals” by Andrew C. Connolly, Long Sha, J. Swaroop Guntupalli, Nikolaas Oosterhof, Yaroslav O. Halchenko, Samuel A. Nastase, Matteo Visconti di Oleggio Castello, Hervé Abdi, Barbara C. Jobst, M. Ida Gobbini, and James V. Haxby in Journal of Neuroscience. Published online May 11 2016 doi:10.1523/JNEUROSCI.3395-15.2016
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[cbtabs][cbtab title=”MLA”]SFN. “Evaluating Animal Threats and Human Intentions Uses Common Brain Network.” NeuroscienceNews. NeuroscienceNews, 13 May 2016. <https://neurosciencenews.com/human-cognition-superior-temporal-sulcus-4239/>.[/cbtab][cbtab title=”APA”]SFN. (2016, May 11). Evaluating Animal Threats and Human Intentions Uses Common Brain Network. NeuroscienceNews. Retrieved May 13, 2016 from https://neurosciencenews.com/human-cognition-superior-temporal-sulcus-4239/[/cbtab][cbtab title=”Chicago”]SFN. “Evaluating Animal Threats and Human Intentions Uses Common Brain Network.” NeuroscienceNews. https://neurosciencenews.com/human-cognition-superior-temporal-sulcus-4239/ (accessed May 13, 2016).[/cbtab][/cbtabs]
How the Human Brain Represents Perceived Dangerousness or “Predacity” of Animals
Common or folk knowledge about animals is dominated by three dimensions: (1) level of cognitive complexity or “animacy;” (2) dangerousness or “predacity;” and (3) size. We investigated the neural basis of the perceived dangerousness or aggressiveness of animals, which we refer to more generally as “perception of threat.” Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), we analyzed neural activity evoked by viewing images of animal categories that spanned the dissociable semantic dimensions of threat and taxonomic class. The results reveal a distributed network for perception of threat extending along the right superior temporal sulcus. We compared neural representational spaces with target representational spaces based on behavioral judgments and a computational model of early vision and found a processing pathway in which perceived threat emerges as a dominant dimension: whereas visual features predominate in early visual cortex and taxonomy in lateral occipital and ventral temporal cortices, these dimensions fall away progressively from posterior to anterior temporal cortices, leaving threat as the dominant explanatory variable. Our results suggest that the perception of threat in the human brain is associated with neural structures that underlie perception and cognition of social actions and intentions, suggesting a broader role for these regions than has been thought previously, one that includes the perception of potential threat from agents independent of their biological class.
SIGNIFICANCE STATEMENT For centuries, philosophers have wondered how the human mind organizes the world into meaningful categories and concepts. Today this question is at the core of cognitive science, but our focus has shifted to understanding how knowledge manifests in dynamic activity of neural systems in the human brain. This study advances the young field of empirical neuroepistemology by characterizing the neural systems engaged by an important dimension in our cognitive representation of the animal kingdom ontological subdomain: how the brain represents the perceived threat, dangerousness, or “predacity” of animals. Our findings reveal how activity for domain-specific knowledge of animals overlaps the social perception networks of the brain, suggesting domain-general mechanisms underlying the representation of conspecifics and other animals.
“How the Human Brain Represents Perceived Dangerousness or “Predacity” of Animals” by Andrew C. Connolly, Long Sha, J. Swaroop Guntupalli, Nikolaas Oosterhof, Yaroslav O. Halchenko, Samuel A. Nastase, Matteo Visconti di Oleggio Castello, Hervé Abdi, Barbara C. Jobst, M. Ida Gobbini, and James V. Haxby in Journal of Neuroscience. Published online May 11 2016 doi:10.1523/JNEUROSCI.3395-15.2016