Event Abstract

Neural correlates of intention attribution in communication: Communicative intentions and expressive means

  • 1 University of Turin, Italy, Department of Philosophy and Educational Sciences, Italy
  • 2 Neuroscience Institute of Turin, Italy
  • 3 University of Turin, Department of Psychology, Italy

According to the cognitive pragmatics approach, successful communication requires the recognition of a specific class of intentions, i.e., communicative intentions, defined as the intention to affect other mental states along with higher-order intention that this intention is recognized by the addressee (Grice, 1957; Bara, 2010). Communicative intentions represent the primary mental state to be dealt with in explaining other people’s communicative behavior, independent of the communicative modality (linguistic or gestural) through which it is conveyed (Bara et al., 2016). Communicative intention processing connects human communication with a more general type of mental state processing, such as Theory of Mind (ToM), namely, the ability to understand and predict other people’s behavior by attributing independent mental states to them (Baron-Cohen, 1995). In a series of neuroimaging studies (Ciaramidaro et al., 2007; Walter et al., 2004; Walter et al., 2009), we proposed a model consisting of a dynamic intention processing network (IPN), wherein certain brain areas, including the posterior superior temporal sulcus (pSTS) and the adjacent temporal parietal junction (TPJ) areas, the precuneus, and the medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC), are differentially involved depending on the nature of the intention processed, from private to communicative intention. By using a story completion task presented in comic strip form, we showed that the activation of the whole IPN only emerged during communicative intention processing, when two characters were depicted in a communicative interaction mediated by extralinguistic gestures. By contrast, IPN activation was limited to the right pSTS/TPJ and precuneus when a character was shown acting with a private intention or when two characters were shown acting, each with their own private intention. It is important to note that the IPN shows no complete anatomo-functional overlap, neither with the brain regions associated to ToM, particularly to affective ToM, that is, the ability to infer other’s affective mental states such as emotions, nor with the mirror system. In two further studies (Enrici et al., 2011; Tettamanti et al., 2017), we specifically investigated which communication modalities, i.e., linguistic and extralinguistic gestural, are processed by distinct neural networks, and whether these neural networks overlap or are rather independent from the IPN implicated in communicative intention processing. In a first neuroimaging study (Enrici et al., 2011), we adopted a modified version of the story completion task previously used, representing communicative intentions in either linguistic (simple and direct communication acts in written form) or gestural (depicted conventional ideational gestures, particularly emblem gestures) modality in a functional magnetic resonance imaging setting. Findings revealed that the IPN was recruited for the comprehension of communicative intention, independently of the linguistic or extralinguistic modality through which it was conveyed. Additional brain areas, outside those involved in intention processing, were specifically engaged in accordance with the particular communicative modality. Specifically, the linguistic modality additionally recruited the perisylvian language network, including the pars opercularis of the left inferior frontal gyrus (LIFG). By contrast, the extralinguistic modality additionally recruited a sensorimotor network, including the pars opercularis of the right inferior frontal gyrus (RIFG). Based on these results, we suggest that the LIFG and RIFG reflect modality-specific input gateways, conveying stimulus and associated high-order information to the IPN. In a second recent connectivity study (Tettamanti et al., 2017), we tested the modality-specific gateway hypothesis by using Dynamic Causal Modeling to measure inter-regional functional integration dynamics between the IPN and LIFG/RIFG gateways. We found strong evidence of a well-defined effective connectivity architecture mediating the functional integration between the IPN and inferior frontal cortices. The connectivity dynamics indicates a modality-specific propagation of stimulus information from LIFG to IPN for the linguistic modality, and from RIFG to IPN for the extralinguistic modality. The findings corroborate the hypothesis that the LIFG and RIFG represent the modality-specific gateways that allow linguistic and extralinguistic stimulus information, respectively, to be integrated in communicative intentions elaborated through the IPN. Taken together, the studies we present at the XPRAG.it Conference describe a well-defined set of brain structures (the IPN) involved in the attribution of communicative intention independently of the modality through which they are conveyed and two additional neural gateways involving the inferior frontal cortices depending on, respectively, the linguistic (LIFG) or extralinguistic (RIFG) communication modality.


Ivan Enrici was supported by University of Turin grants (“Ricerca scientifica finanziata dall’Università” Linea Generale and Linea Giovani).


Bara, B. G. (2010). Cognitive pragmatics. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Bara B.G., Enrici I., Adenzato M. (2016). At the core of pragmatics: The neural substrates of communicative intentions. In: G.S. Hickok, S.L. Small (eds.), Neurobiology of Language. (pp. 675-685). New York: Elsevier.
Baron-Cohen, S. (1995). Mindblindness: An essay on autism and theory of mind. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Ciaramidaro A., Adenzato M., Enrici I., Erk S., Pia L., Bara B.G., et al. (2007). The intentional network: How the brain reads varieties of intentions. Neuropsychologia, 45, 3105–3113.
Enrici, I., Adenzato, M., Cappa, S., Bara, B. G., & Tettamanti, M. (2011). Intention Processing in Communication: A Common Brain Network for Language and Gestures. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 23(9), 2415–2431.
Grice, H. P. (1975). Logic and conversation. In P. Cole & J. L. Morgan (Eds.), Syntax and semantics. Speech acts (pp. 41–58). New York: Academic Press.
Tettamanti, M., Vaghi, M.M., Bara, B.G., Cappa, S.F., Enrici, I., Adenzato, M. (2017). Effective connectivity gateways to the Theory of Mind network in processing communicative intention. NeuroImage, 155, 169-176.
Walter, H., Adenzato, M., Ciaramidaro, A., Enrici, I., Pia, L., & Bara, B.G. (2004). Understanding intentions in social interaction: The role of the anterior paracingulate cortex. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 16, 1854-1863.
Walter, H., Ciaramidaro, A., Adenzato, M., Vasic, N., Ardito, R.B., Erk, S., et al. (2009). Dysfunction of the social brain in schizophrenia is modulated by intention type: An fMRI study. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 4, 166-176.

Keywords: Communicative intention, Communicative modality, social cognition, Theory of Mind, fMRI, Dynamic Causal Modeling.

Conference: XPRAG.it Behavioral and Neural Evidence on Pragmatic Processing , Genoa, Italy, 10 Jun - 11 Jun, 2017.

Presentation Type: Oral Presentation

Topic: Cognitive approaches to pragmatics

Citation: Enrici I and Adenzato M (2019). Neural correlates of intention attribution in communication: Communicative intentions and expressive means
. Front. Psychol. Conference Abstract: XPRAG.it Behavioral and Neural Evidence on Pragmatic Processing . doi: 10.3389/conf.fpsyg.2017.71.00016

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Received: 09 May 2017; Published Online: 25 Jan 2019.

* Correspondence: Dr. Ivan Enrici, University of Turin, Italy, Department of Philosophy and Educational Sciences, Turin, 10124, Italy, ivan.enrici@unito.it

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