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Dr Donald Stuss
This area of the brain is important in high-level human functions
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Thursday, 1 February, 2001, 13:44 GMT
Brain region for understanding minds
Brain BBC
Researchers in Canada say that our ability to understand the thoughts of other people - to some times "read between the lines" - appears to be generated by a single region in the brain.

And they say this discovery may therefore hold part of the explanation for what makes us "human". Understanding what other people are thinking is one of the qualities that sets human beings apart from other primates.

It enables us to socialise by feeling sympathy for others, appreciating humour or understanding when someone else is being sarcastic or deceptive.

Dr Donald Stuss, director of the Rotman Research Institute, Toronto, and colleagues say these higher cognitive functions seem to be directed from a region of the brain about the size of a billiard ball, at the front of the head in an area called the frontal lobes.

Conversation subtleties

Dr Stuss told the BBC that people who had damaged this region gave the clinical impression that they had "lost personal contact".

He illustrated this with the case of the husband who could no longer read the subtleties contained in the conversations he had with his wife.

"Before, she would come home from work after a hard day's work and her husband would look at her and say 'honey, what's wrong - have you had a tough day?' and he might bring her flowers if she was really down. Now, after his brain damage, he just doesn't pick up on those cues at all."

Dr Stuss and his team studied people who had had strokes, which had damaged different regions of their brains, and measured how they performed simple tasks in comparison with healthy volunteers.

Hidden ball

In the tests, the participants were asked to locate a ball that had been hidden out of view under one of several coffee cups. On occasions, the subjects were given advice from an assistant. Some times the assistant would be deliberately deceitful - knowingly pointing to the wrong cup every time.

The results suggested that people with damaged frontal lobes were less likely to know when they were being deceived; they found it much more difficult to pick up what other people were thinking.

"In the tasks that we used, chimpanzees actually have some of that ability; they have some type of theory of mind," Dr Stuss said. "What we've demonstrated is at a higher level. Humans clearly have very different social interactions and the type of problems that they have impede their high-level social interactions."

The research, which is published in the journal Brain, could help families and carers of people with brain damage to understand better and cope with the changes in personality and social behaviour that frequently follow a stoke, Dr Stuss said.

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