Brain mechanisms underlying human communication

Matthijs L. Noordzij (Corresponding Author), Sarah E. Newman-Norlund, Jan Peter de Ruiter, Peter Hagoort, Stephen C. Levinson, Ivan Toni

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Human communication has been described as involving the coding-decoding of a conventional symbol system, which could be supported by parts of the human motor system (i.e. the “mirror neurons system”). However, this view does not explain how these conventions could develop in the first place. Here we target the neglected but crucial issue of how people organize their non-verbal behavior to communicate a given intention without pre-established conventions. We have measured behavioral and brain responses in pairs of subjects during communicative exchanges occurring in a real, interactive, on-line social context. In two fMRI studies, we found robust evidence that planning new communicative actions (by a sender) and recognizing the communicative intention of the same actions (by a receiver) relied on spatially overlapping portions of their brains (the right posterior superior temporal sulcus). The response of this region was lateralized to the right hemisphere, modulated by the ambiguity in meaning of the communicative acts, but not by their sensorimotor complexity. These results indicate that the sender of a communicative signal uses his own intention recognition system to make a prediction of the intention recognition performed by the receiver. This finding supports the notion that our communicative abilities are distinct from both sensorimotor processes and language abilities.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-12
Number of pages12
JournalFrontiers in human neuroscience
Issue number14
Publication statusPublished - 2009


  • FP6/003747
  • Social neuroscience
  • Superior temporal sulcus
  • fMRI
  • Interactive game


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