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The neural correlates of social attention: automatic orienting to social and nonsocial cues

  • Author(s): Greene, Deanna J.
  • Mooshagian, Eric
  • Kaplan, Jonas T.
  • Zaidel, Eran
  • Iacoboni, Marco
  • et al.
Abstract

Previous evidence suggests that directional social cues (e.g., eye gaze) cause automatic shifts in attention toward gaze direction. It has been proposed that automatic attentional orienting driven by social cues (social orienting) involves a different neural network from automatic orienting driven by nonsocial cues. However, previous neuroimaging studies on social orienting have only compared gaze cues to symbolic cues, which typically engage top-down mechanisms. Therefore, we directly compared the neural activity involved in social orienting to that involved in purely automatic nonsocial orienting. Twenty participants performed a spatial cueing task consisting of social (gaze) cues and automatic nonsocial (peripheral squares) cues presented at short and long stimulus (cue-to-target) onset asynchronies (SOA), while undergoing fMRI. Behaviorally, a facilitation effect was found for both cue types at the short SOA, while an inhibitory effect (inhibition of return: IOR) was found only for nonsocial cues at the long SOA. Imaging results demonstrated that social and nonsocial cues recruited a largely overlapping fronto-parietal network. In addition, social cueing evoked greater activity in occipito-temporal regions at both SOAs, while nonsocial cueing recruited greater subcortical activity, but only for the long SOA (when IOR was found). A control experiment, including central arrow cues, confirmed that the occipito-temporal activity was at least in part due to the social nature of the cue and not simply to the location of presentation (central vs. peripheral). These results suggest an evolutionary trajectory for automatic orienting, from predominantly subcortical mechanisms for nonsocial orienting to predominantly cortical mechanisms for social orienting.

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