Think about your mother. Now think about
your best friend. Now think about your
favorite teacher. Each of those thoughts
produced a distinct, interpretable pattern of
activity in your brain, suggests new research
by Cornell University psychologist Nathan
In the study, published in March in
Cerebral Cortex, Spreng and colleagues asked
19 young adults to learn about four people.
Each protagonist profile included a name,
photograph and 12 statements that described
aspects of the protagonist’s personality.
Next, the researchers asked participants
to imagine how the four protagonists would
behave in different settings — for example,
what would each do if he or she were in a bar
and someone spilled his or her drink? The
participants imagined these vignettes for 10
seconds as they lay in an fMRI scanner.
When Spreng and his colleagues examined
the scans, they were able to identify which
protagonist the participant was thinking
about based on the pattern of activity in the
participant’s medial prefrontal cortex. They
also found that areas of the cortex seemed to
code for different personality traits, such as
agreeableness and extraversion.
Such research, Spreng says, will help
scientists understand how people successfully
navigate social situations, because learning
about other people and predicting how they
will behave in different circumstances is a key
part of that navigation.
“We’re really trying to understand the
neural mechanisms behind how we have
this inner world,” Spreng says. “We spend a
lot of time thinking about other people, yet
scientists don’t understand these processes
The research could also lead to a better
understanding of disorders in which such
abilities are impaired, like autism, he says.
Spreng hopes to extend the research to
look at how people form representations
of real people in their lives, such as family
members and friends.
Who are you thinking about? The fMRI knows