Overlapping Neural Correlates Underpin Theory of Mind and Semantic Cognition: Evidence from a Meta-Analysis of 344 Functional Neuroimaging Studies

Eva Balgova, Veronica Diveica, Rebecca L. Jackson, Richard J. Binney

Research output: Working paperPreprint


Key unanswered questions for cognitive neuroscience include whether social cognition is underpinned by specialised brain regions, and to what extent it simultaneously depends on more domain-general systems. Until we glean a better understanding of the contribution made by domain-general cognitive systems, theories of social cognition will remain fundamentally limited. In the present study, we evaluate a recent and novel proposal that the semantic cognition network plays a crucial role in supporting social processes. We specifically focus on theory of mind (ToM) abilities and adopt a meta-analytic activation likelihood estimation approach to synthesise the results of a large set of functional neuroimaging studies. Our primary aim was to establish the degree of topological overlap between the cortical networks involved in ToM and semantic tasks. Moreover, we sought to account for key methodological differences across the two sets of tasks, including the fact that ToM studies tend to use nonverbal stimuli while the semantics literature is dominated by language-based tasks. We observed extensive overlap between the two networks in regions strongly implicated in semantic cognition, including the anterior temporal lobes and the left temporoparietal junction (TPJ). Activation specific to ToM was identified in the right TPJ, bilateral anterior mPFC, and right precuneus. These findings persisted even after controlling for discrepancies in the types of experimental stimuli used in each domain. Overall, the findings support the claim that ToM draws upon more general semantic retrieval processes and are against the view that ToM is underpinned solely by a domain-specific social neurocognitive system.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages49
Publication statusPublished - 17 Aug 2023

Cite this