Typically developing children begin to produce and understand pretend play between 18 and 24 months of age, and early pretense has been argued to be a candidate “core” capacity central to the deployment of representations of other peoples' mental states—“theory of mind.” In a functional magnetic resonance imaging study, 16 healthy adult volunteers were imaged while watching short (5 sec) clips of actors who either performed simple everyday actions or pretended to perform a similar set of actions, under covert conditions (e.g., participants were not directed to attend to actors' mental states). There was increased activity in the medial prefrontal areas (Brodmann's areas [BA] 9/6/32, 9, and 10), inferior frontal gyrus bilaterally (BA 44, 47), temporo-parietal regions (BA 21 and 22), and parahippocampal areas, including the amygdala, when subjects viewed pretend actions as compared with real actions. This result suggests that at least some areas previously implicated in making explicit mental state judgments are also strongly activated in response to actions that call for mental state interpretation (e.g., pretense) even when there is no explicit instruction for “mind reading.” This outcome is discussed in terms of accounts that propose “theory of mind” to be underwritten by automatic specialized mechanisms for the interpretation of the behavior of social agents.

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