Brain Responses Underlying Anthropomorphism, Agency, and Social Attribution in Autism Spectrum Disorder

Carla J. Ammons, Constance F. Doss, David Bala, Rajesh K. Kana*
Department of Psychology, University of Alabama at Birmingham, Birmingham, AL, USA

© 2018 Ammons et al.

open-access license: This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International Public License (CC-BY 4.0), a copy of which is available at: This license permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.

* Address correspondence to this authors at the Department of Psychology, University of Alabama, Birmingham, CIRC 235G, 1719 6th Ave South, Birmingham, AL 35294-0021, USA, Tel: (205) 934-3171; Fax: (205) 975-6330, Email:



Theory of Mind (ToM), the ability to attribute mental states to oneself and others, is frequently impaired in Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and may result from altered activation of social brain regions. Conversely, Typically Developing (TD) individuals overextend ToM and show a strong tendency to anthropomorphize and interpret biological motion in the environment. Less is known about how the degree of anthropomorphism influences intentional attribution and engagement of the social brain in ASD.


This fMRI study examines the extent of anthropomorphism, its role in social attribution, and the underlying neural responses in ASD and TD using a series of human stick figures and geometrical shapes.


14 ASD and 14 TD adults watched videos of stick figures and triangles interacting in random or socially meaningful ways while in an fMRI scanner. In addition, they completed out-of-scanner measures of ToM skill and real-world social deficits. Whole brain statistical analysis was performed for regression and within and between group comparisons of all conditions using SPM12’s implementation of the general linear model.


ToM network regions were activated in response to social movement and human-like characters in ASD and TD. In addition, greater ToM ability was associated with increased TPJ and MPFC activity while watching stick figures; whereas more severe social symptoms were associated with reduced right TPJ activation in response to social movement.


These results suggest that degree of anthropomorphism does not differentially affect social attribution in ASD and highlights the importance of TPJ in ToM and social attribution.

Keywords: Autism, Animation, Anthropomorphism, Theory of Mind, Social attribution, Functional MRI, Social brain.