Perception Journal Club

Attributing intentions to random motion engages the posterior superior temporal sulcus

Su Mei Lee, Tao Gao, and Gregory McCarthy The right posterior superior temporal sulcus (pSTS) is a neural region involved in assessing the goals and intentions underlying the motion of social agents. Recent research has identified visual cues, such as chasing, that trigger animacy detection and intention attribution. When readily available in a visual display, these cues reliably activate the pSTS. Here, using functional magnetic resonance imaging, we examined if attributing intentions to random motion would likewise engage the pSTS. Participants viewed displays of four moving circles and were instructed to search for chasing or mirror-correlated motion. On chasing trials, one circle chased another circle, invoking the percept of an intentional agent; while on correlated motion trials, one circles motion was mirror reflected by another. On the remaining trials, all circles moved randomly. As expected, pSTS activation was greater when participants searched for chasing vs correlated motion when these cues were present in the displays. Of critical importance, pSTS activation was also greater when participants searched for chasing compared to mirror-correlated motion when the displays in both search conditions were statistically identical random motion. We conclude that pSTS activity associated with intention attribution can be invoked by top–down processes in the absence of reliable visual cues for intentionality.