Coupling social attention to the self forms a network for personal significance
Jie Sui, Pia Rotshtein, and Glyn W. Humphreys
PNAS May 7, 2013 vol. 110 no. 19 7607-7612
Prior social psychological studies show that newly assigned personal significance can modulate high-level cognitive processes, e.g., memory and social evaluation, with self- and other-related information processed in dissociated prefrontal structure: ventral vs. dorsal, respectively. Here, we demonstrate the impact of personal significance on perception and show the neural network that supports this effect. We used an associative learning procedure in which we “tag” a neutral shape with a self-relevant label. Participants were instructed to associate three neutral shapes with labels for themselves, their best friend, or an unfamiliar other. Functional magnetic resonance imaging data were acquired while participants judged whether the shape-label pairs were maintained or swapped. Behaviorally, participants rapidly tagged a neutral stimulus with self-relevance, showing a robust advantage for self-tagged stimuli. Self-tagging responses were associated with enhanced activity in brain regions linked to self-representation [the ventral medial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC)] and to sensory-driven regions associated with social attention [the left posterior superior temporal sulcus (LpSTS)]. In contrast, associations formed with other people recruited a dorsal frontoparietal control network, with the two networks being inversely correlated. Responses in the vmPFC and LpSTS predicted behavioral self-bias effects. Effective connectivity analyses showed that the vmPFC and the LpSTS were functionally coupled, with the strength of coupling associated with behavioral self-biases. The data show that assignment of personal social significance affects perceptual matching by coupling internal self-representations to brain regions modulating attentional responses to external stimuli.