Reading minds versus following rules: dissociating theory of mind and executive control in the brain.

Rebecca Saxe, Laura E. Schulz, Yuhong V. Jiang

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

136 Scopus citations


The false belief task commonly used in the study of theory of mind (ToM) requires participants to select among competing responses and inhibit prepotent responses, giving rise to three possibilities: (1) the false belief tasks might require only executive function abilities and there may be no domain-specific component; (2) executive control might be necessary for the emergence of ToM in development but play no role in adult mental state inferences; and (3) executive control and domain-specific ToM abilities might both be implicated. We used fMRI in healthy adults to dissociate these possibilities. We found that non-overlapping brain regions were implicated selectively in response selection and belief attribution, that belief attribution tasks recruit brain regions associated with response selection as much as well-matched control tasks, and that regions associated with ToM (e.g., the right temporo-parietal junction) were implicated only in the belief attribution tasks. These results suggest that both domain-general and domain-specific cognitive resources are involved in adult ToM.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)284-298
Number of pages15
JournalSocial neuroscience
Issue number3-4
StatePublished - 2006

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
Correspondence should be addressed to: Rebecca Saxe, 46·4019, 43 Vassar St, MIT, Cambridge, MA 02138, USA. E-mail: The fMRI resources used in this study were supported by NCRR grant 41RR14075, the MIND Institute, and the Athinoula A. Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging. Thanks to J. Gallant, R. Ivry, and N. Kanwisher for helpful comments and suggestions, and to C. Zhao for help collecting and analyzing the data.


Dive into the research topics of 'Reading minds versus following rules: dissociating theory of mind and executive control in the brain.'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this