Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience
Anticipating the sensorimotor consequences of an action for both self and other is fundamental for action coordination when individuals socially interact. Somatosensation constitutes an elementary component of social cognition and sensorimotor prediction, but its functions in active social behavior remain unclear. We hypothesized that the somatosensory system contributes to social haptic behavior as evidenced by specific anticipatory activation patterns when touching an animate target (human hand) compared with an inanimate target (fake hand). fMRI scanning was performed during a paradigm that allowed us to isolate the anticipatory representations of active interpersonal touch while controlling for nonsocial sensorimotor processes and possible confounds because of interpersonal relationships or socioemotional valence. Active interpersonal touch was studied both as skin-to-skin contact and as object-mediated touch. The results showed weaker deactivation in primary somatosensory cortex and medial pFC and stronger activation in cerebellum for the animate target, compared with the inanimate target, when intending to touch it with one's own hand. Differently, in anticipation of touching the human hand with an object, anterior inferior parietal lobule and lateral occipital-temporal cortex showed stronger activity. When actually touching a human hand with one's own hand, activation was stronger in medial pFC but weaker in primary somatosensory cortex. The findings provide new insight on the contribution of simulation and sensory prediction mechanisms to active social behavior. They also suggest that literally getting in touch with someone and touching someone by using an object might be approached by an agent as functionally distinct conditions.