Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience
The capacity to reason about complex information is a central characteristic of human cognition. An important component of many reasoning tasks is the need to integrate multiple mental relations. Several researchers have argued that rostrolateral prefrontal cortex (RLPFC) plays a key role in relational integration. If this hypothesis is correct, then RLPFC should play a key role in transitive inference, which requires the integration of multiple relations to reach a conclusion. Thus far, however, neuroscientific research on transitive inference has focused primarily on the hippocampus. In this fMRI study, we sought to compare the roles of RLPFC and the hippocampus on a novel transitive inference paradigm. Four relations between colored balls were presented on the screen together with a target relation. Participants were asked to decide whether the target relation was correct, given the other indicated relations between balls. RLPFC, but not the hippocampus, exhibited stronger activation on trials that required relational integration as compared with trials that involved relational encoding without integration. In contrast, the hippocampus exhibited a pattern consistent with a role in relational encoding, with stronger activation on trials requiring encoding of relational predicate–argument structure as compared with trials requiring encoding of item–item associations. Functional connectivity analyses give rise to the hypothesis that RLPFC draws on hippocampal representations of mental relations during the process of relational integration.