When movements indicate meaningful actions, even nonbiological objects induce the impression of "having a mind" or animacy. This basic social ability was investigated in adults with high-functioning autism (HFA, n = 13, and matched controls, n = 13) by systematically varying motion properties of simple geometric shapes. Critically, trial-by-trial variations of (1) motion complexity of stimuli, and of (2) participants' individual animacy ratings were separately correlated with neural activity to dissociate cognitive strategies relying more closely on stimulus analysis vs. subjective experience. Increasing motion complexity did not yield any significant group differences, and in both groups, it correlated with neural activity in regions involved in perceptual and evaluative processing, including the ventral medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC), superior temporal gyrus (STG) and posterior cingulate cortex (PCC). In contrast, although there were no significant behavioral differences between the groups, increasing animacy ratings correlated with neural activity in the insula, STG, amygdala, dorsal mPFC and PCC more strongly in controls than in HFA. These results indicate that in HFA the evaluation of stimulus properties cuing for animacy is intact, while increasing subjective ratings do not seem to be robustly related to social processing, including spontaneous mental state inferences and experience of salience.
- High-functioning autism
- Social cognition