Neural correlates of recursive thinking during interpersonal strategic interactions

Shanshan Zhen*, Rongjun Yu*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalJournal articlepeer-review

6 Citations (Scopus)


To navigate the complex social world, individuals need to represent others' mental states to think strategically and predict their next move. Strategic mentalizing can be classified into different levels of theory of mind according to its order of mental state attribution of other people's beliefs, desires, intentions, and so forth. For example, reasoning people's beliefs about simple world facts is the first-order attribution while going further to reason people's beliefs about the minds of others is the second-order attribution. The neural substrates that support such high-order recursive reasoning in strategic interpersonal interactions are still unclear. Here, using a sequential-move interactional game together with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), we showed that recursive reasoning engaged the frontal-subcortical regions. At the stimulus stage, the ventral striatum was more activated in high-order reasoning as compared with low-order reasoning. At the decision stage, high-order reasoning activated the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) and other mentalizing regions. Moreover, functional connectivity between the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex (dmPFC) and the insula/hippocampus was positively correlated with individual differences in high-order social reasoning. This work delineates the neural correlates of high-order recursive thinking in strategic games and highlights the key role of the interplay between mPFC and subcortical regions in advanced social decision-making.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2128-2146
Number of pages19
JournalHuman Brain Mapping
Issue number7
Early online date29 Jan 2021
Publication statusPublished - May 2021

Scopus Subject Areas

  • Anatomy
  • Radiological and Ultrasound Technology
  • Radiology Nuclear Medicine and imaging
  • Neurology
  • Clinical Neurology

User-Defined Keywords

  • game theory
  • neuroimaging
  • recursive reasoning
  • sequential-move game
  • strategic thinking
  • theory of mind


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