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Somatosensation in social perception

An Erratum to this article was published on 20 September 2010

Key Points

  • The primary somatosensory cortex is composed of four subregions: Brodmann area 3a (BA3a), which is primarily proprioceptive; BA3b and BA1, which are primarily tactile; and BA2, which combines tactile and proprioceptive information

  • Of the somatosensory cortices, only BA2 and the secondary somatosensory cortex (SII) have direct connections with brain regions that are known to contain neurons that respond to visual and auditory stimuli. This could provide an anatomical pathway for these regions to respond to the sight of other people's somatosensory experiences.

  • SII shows elevated activity when people are touched and when they see other people, and in some studies objects, being touched.

  • BA2 shows elevated activity both when people manipulate objects and when they see the actions of other individuals, especially when these actions are directed at objects.

  • SI and SII are activated when people experience somatic pain and when they attend to other people's somatic pain.

  • Interfering with activity in BA2 and SII impairs the perception of other people's facial expressions.

  • Mirror-touch synaesthetes experience observed touch on their own body, and one-third of the population experiences pain on their own body when they see the injuries of other people. Both groups activate their SI and SII more strongly than other people when viewing the touch and injuries, respectively, of others, linking SI and SII activity with the vivid sharing of other people's somatosensory states.

  • Unlike BA2 and SII, BA3 seems to be exclusively involved in processing our own somatosensory states. This may help to distinguish our own states from those we perceive in others.

  • Anatomical and functional data converge to show that the somatosensory cortices, and BA2 and SII in particular, can contribute to our perception of other people's inner states by activating representations 'as if' we were experiencing similar tactile, proprioceptive and nociceptive stimuli on our own body.

Abstract

The discovery of mirror neurons in motor areas of the brain has led many to assume that our ability to understand other people's behaviour partially relies on vicarious activations of motor cortices. This Review focuses the limelight of social neuroscience on a different set of brain regions: the somatosensory cortices. These have anatomical connections that enable them to have a role in visual and auditory social perception. Studies that measure brain activity while participants witness the sensations, actions and somatic pain of others consistently show vicarious activation in the somatosensory cortices. Neuroscientists are starting to understand how the brain adds a somatosensory dimension to our perception of other people.

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Figure 1: Cortical processing networks for somatosensation.
Figure 2: Audio/visual input to tactile, haptic and nociceptive processing.
Figure 3: Vicarious tactile activity in the secondary somatosensory cortex.
Figure 4: Vicarious activity during the observation of actions.

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Acknowledgements

V.G. and C.K. conceived and wrote the Review, and J.H.K. wrote the anatomical section and provided comments on the manuscript. The work was supported by a Marie Curie Excellence Grant of the European Commission, a VIDI grant frm the Dutch Science Foundation (NWO) to C.K. and VENI giant (NWO) to V.G. The authors wish to thank D. Arnstein, A. Avenanti and L. Fadiga for comments, L. Cerliani and S. Rozzi for discussions on the anatomical connections of the somatosensory cortices and insula, L. Aziz-Zadeh, D. Dinstein and L. Turella for their data on action observation and F. Filimon for re-examining it in relation to the location of BA2. They would also like to thank S. Ebisch for providing the lower half of figure 3 and A. Avenanti for the figure in Box 2.

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Glossary

Vicarious activation

Activation of a brain region that is normally involved in processing the observer's own actions and sensations, but that is now activated by seeing similar actions or sensations in another person.

Proprioception

The sense through which we perceive the position and movements of our own body.

Nociception

The sense through which we perceive damage caused to our own body — for example, by excessive heat, cold or physical injury.

Muscle spindle receptors

Receptors in the muscles that measure changes in muscle length and hence changes in the location of the relevant body part.

Haptics

The sense through which we perceive the world by actively exploring it with our body — for instance, finding our keys among a pocketful of coins.

Median nerve

A nerve running through the carpal tunnel that innervates one half of the hand and forearm.

Somatosensory evoked potentials

Electroencephalographic (EEG) signals recorded from the scalp that are induced by the repeated application of a somatosensory stimulus to the body or by electrically triggering activity in the somatosensory fibres in peripheral nerves.

Forward model

A system that predicts the consequences of a motor command in sensory (somatosensory in particular) terms.

Qualia

(Plural of quale.) A quality or property as it is perceived or experienced by a person. For instance, although a tomato has the same physical properties regardless of whether it is seen by a typical or a colour-blind viewer, the qualia it will trigger in the two individuals differ substantially, with a 'redness' perception triggered only in the former.

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Keysers, C., Kaas, J. & Gazzola, V. Somatosensation in social perception. Nat Rev Neurosci 11, 417–428 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1038/nrn2833

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