Conversational interaction in the scanner: mentalizing during language processing as revealed by MEG

Sara Bögels, Dale J. Barr, Simon Garrod, Klaus Kessler

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Humans are especially good at taking another's perspective-representing what others might be thinking or experiencing. This "mentalizing" capacity is apparent in everyday human interactions and conversations. We investigated its neural basis using magnetoencephalography. We focused on whether mentalizing was engaged spontaneously and routinely to understand an utterance's meaning or largely on-demand, to restore "common ground" when expectations were violated. Participants conversed with 1 of 2 confederate speakers and established tacit agreements about objects' names. In a subsequent "test" phase, some of these agreements were violated by either the same or a different speaker. Our analysis of the neural processing of test phase utterances revealed recruitment of neural circuits associated with language (temporal cortex), episodic memory (e.g., medial temporal lobe), and mentalizing (temporo-parietal junction and ventromedial prefrontal cortex). Theta oscillations (3-7 Hz) were modulated most prominently, and we observed phase coupling between functionally distinct neural circuits. The episodic memory and language circuits were recruited in anticipation of upcoming referring expressions, suggesting that context-sensitive predictions were spontaneously generated. In contrast, the mentalizing areas were recruited on-demand, as a means for detecting and resolving perceived pragmatic anomalies, with little evidence they were activated to make partner-specific predictions about upcoming linguistic utterances.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)3219-3234
Number of pages16
JournalCerebral Cortex
Issue number9
Early online date5 Jun 2014
Publication statusPublished - Sept 2015

Bibliographical note

© The Author 2014. Published by Oxford University Press.
This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (, which permits unrestricted reuse, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.

Grant number: ESRC RES-000-22-4325.

Supplementary data at


  • conversational interaction
  • episodic working memory
  • magnetoencephalography
  • theory of mind
  • perspective
  • taking pragmatics


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