Attributed social context and emotional content recruit frontal and limbic brain regions during virtual feedback processing

  • Sebastian SchindlerEmail author
  • Onno Kruse
  • Rudolf Stark
  • Johanna Kissler


In communication, who is communicating can be just as important as what is said. However, sender identity in virtual communication is often inferred rather than perceived. Therefore, the present research investigates the brain structures activated by sender identity attributions and evaluative feedback processing during virtual communication. In a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) study, 32 participants were told that they would receive personality feedback, either sent from another human participant or from a randomly acting computer. In reality, both conditions contained random but counterbalanced feedback, automatically delivered by approving or denying negative, neutral, or positive adjectives. Although physically identical, feedback attributed to the “human” sender activated multiple regions within a "social brain" network, including the superior frontal, medial prefrontal, and orbitofrontal cortex, anterior and posterior parts of the cingulate cortex, and the bilateral insula. Regardless of attributed sender, positive feedback increased responses in the striatum and bilateral amygdalae, while negative compared to neutral feedback elicited stronger insula and somatosensory responses. These results reveal the recruitment of an extensive mentalizing and social brain network by mere sender attributions and the activation of brain structures related to reward and punishment by verbal feedback, demonstrating its embodied processing.


Virtual communication Social context Social feedback Emotion Language fMRI 



The authors declare that they have no conflicts of interest with respect to their authorship or the publication of this article. We thank all participants who contributed to this study. This work was supported by the Bielefelder Nachwuchsfond (Bielefeld University) and a Research Training Fellowship of the Society of Psychophysiological Research (SPR) awarded to SS.

Supplementary material

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© Psychonomic Society, Inc. 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Institute of Medical Psychology and Systems NeuroscienceUniversity of MuensterMuensterGermany
  2. 2.Department of PsychologyBielefeld UniversityBielefeldGermany
  3. 3.Department of Psychotherapy and Systems NeuroscienceJustus Liebig University GiessenGießenGermany
  4. 4.Department of Clinical PsychologyUniversity of SiegenSiegenGermany
  5. 5.Center of Excellence “Cognitive Interaction Technology” (CITEC)Bielefeld UniversityBielefeldGermany

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