Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience
Detection of communicative signals is thought to facilitate knowledge acquisition early in life, but less is known about the role these signals play in adult learning or about the brain systems supporting sensitivity to communicative intent. The current study examined how ostensive gaze cues and communicative actions affect adult recognition memory and modulate neural activity as measured by fMRI. For both the behavioral and fMRI experiments, participants viewed a series of videos of an actress acting on one of two objects in front of her. Communicative context in the videos was manipulated in a 2 × 2 design in which the actress either had direct gaze (Gaze) or wore a visor (NoGaze) and either pointed at (Point) or reached for (Reach) one of the objects (target) in front of her. Participants then completed a recognition memory task with old (target and nontarget) objects and novel objects. Recognition memory for target objects in the Gaze conditions was greater than NoGaze, but no effects of gesture type were seen. Similarly, the fMRI video-viewing task revealed a significant effect of Gaze within right posterior STS (pSTS), but no significant effects of Gesture. Furthermore, pSTS sensitivity to Gaze conditions was related to greater memory for objects viewed in Gaze, as compared with NoGaze, conditions. Taken together, these results demonstrate that the ostensive, communicative signal of direct gaze preceding an object-directed action enhances recognition memory for attended items and modulates the pSTS response to object-directed actions. Thus, establishment of a communicative context through ostensive signals remains an important component of learning and memory into adulthood, and the pSTS may play a role in facilitating this type of social learning.