The brain represents people as the mental states they habitually experience

Mark A. Thornton, Miriam E. Weaverdyck, Diana I. Tamir

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

24 Scopus citations


Social life requires us to treat each person according to their unique disposition. To tailor our behavior to specific individuals, we must represent their idiosyncrasies. Here, we advance the hypothesis that our representations of other people reflect the mental states we perceive those people to habitually experience. We tested this hypothesis by measuring whether neural representations of people could be accurately reconstructed by summing state representations. Separate participants underwent functional MRI while considering famous individuals and individual mental states. Online participants rated how often each famous person experiences each state. Results supported the summed state hypothesis: frequency-weighted sums of state-specific brain activity patterns accurately reconstructed person-specific patterns. Moreover, the summed state account outperformed the established alternative—that people represent others using trait dimensions—in explaining interpersonal similarity. These findings demonstrate that the brain represents people as the sums of the mental states they experience.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number2291
JournalNature communications
Issue number1
StatePublished - Dec 1 2019

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General Chemistry
  • General Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology
  • General Physics and Astronomy


Dive into the research topics of 'The brain represents people as the mental states they habitually experience'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this