The ability and motivation to share attention is a unique aspect of human cognition. Despite its significance, the neural basis remains elusive. To investigate the neural correlates of joint attention, we developed a novel, interactive research paradigm in which participants' gaze behavior—as measured by an eye tracking device—was used to contingently control the gaze of a computer-animated character. Instructed that the character on screen was controlled by a real person outside the scanner, 21 participants interacted with the virtual other while undergoing fMRI. Experimental variations focused on leading versus following the gaze of the character when fixating one of three objects also shown on the screen. In concordance with our hypotheses, results demonstrate, firstly, that following someone else's gaze to engage in joint attention resulted in activation of anterior portion of medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC) known to be involved in the supramodal coordination of perceptual and cognitive processes. Secondly, directing someone else's gaze toward an object activated the ventral striatum which—in light of ratings obtained from participants—appears to underlie the hedonic aspects of sharing attention. The data, therefore, support the idea that other-initiated joint attention relies upon recruitment of MPFC previously related to the “meeting of minds.” In contrast, self-initiated joint attention leads to a differential increase of neural activity in reward-related brain areas, which might contribute to the uniquely human motivation to engage in the sharing of experiences.

You do not currently have access to this content.