Coupling social attention to the self forms a network for personal significance

Edited by Robert Desimone, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA, and approved March 20, 2013 (received for review December 14, 2012)
April 22, 2013
110 (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.


This work was supported by National Nature Science Foundation of China Grant 31170973, UK Economic and Social Research Council Grant ES/J001597/1, and European Research Council Advanced Grant 323883.

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Go to Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
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Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
Vol. 110 | No. 19
May 7, 2013
PubMed: 23610386


Submission history

Published online: April 22, 2013
Published in issue: May 7, 2013


This work was supported by National Nature Science Foundation of China Grant 31170973, UK Economic and Social Research Council Grant ES/J001597/1, and European Research Council Advanced Grant 323883.


This article is a PNAS Direct Submission.



Department of Experimental Psychology, Oxford University, Oxford OX1 3UD, United Kingdom;
Department of Psychology, and
Department of Biomedical Engineering, Center for Biomedical Imaging Research, School of Medicine, Tsinghua University, Beijing 100084, China; and
Pia Rotshtein
School of Psychology, University of Birmingham, Birmingham B15 2TT, United Kingdom
Glyn W. Humphreys
Department of Experimental Psychology, Oxford University, Oxford OX1 3UD, United Kingdom;


To whom correspondence should be addressed. E-mail: [email protected].
Author contributions: J.S. designed research; J.S. performed research; J.S. and P.R. analyzed data; and J.S., P.R., and G.W.H. wrote the paper.

Competing Interests

The authors declare no conflict of interest.

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    Coupling social attention to the self forms a network for personal significance
    Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
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