Social concepts such as "tactless" or "honorable" enable us to describe our own as well as others' social behaviors. The prevailing view is that this abstract social semantic knowledge is mainly subserved by the same medial prefrontal regions that are considered essential for mental state attribution and self-reflection. Nevertheless, neurodegeneration of the anterior temporal cortex typically leads to impairments of social behavior as well as general conceptual knowledge. By using functional MRI, we demonstrate that the anterior temporal lobe represents abstract social semantic knowledge in agreement with this patient evidence. The bilateral superior anterior temporal lobes (Brodmann's area 38) are selectively activated when participants judge the meaning relatedness of social concepts (e.g., honor-brave) as compared with concepts describing general animal functions (e.g., nutritious-useful). Remarkably, only activity in the superior anterior temporal cortex, but not the medial prefrontal cortex, correlates with the richness of detail with which social concepts describe social behavior. Furthermore, this anterior temporal lobe activation is independent of emotional valence, whereas medial prefrontal regions show enhanced activation for positive social concepts. Our results demonstrate that the superior anterior temporal cortex plays a key role in social cognition by providing abstract conceptual knowledge of social behaviors. We further speculate that these abstract conceptual representations can be associated with different contexts of social actions and emotions through integration with frontolimbic circuits to enable flexible evaluations of social behavior.
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