Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience
Extant research has examined the process of decision making under uncertainty, specifically in situations of ambiguity. However, much of this work has been conducted in the context of semantic and low-level visual processing. An open question is whether ambiguity in social signals (e.g., emotional facial expressions) is processed similarly or whether a unique set of processors come on-line to resolve ambiguity in a social context. Our work has examined ambiguity using surprised facial expressions, as they have predicted both positive and negative outcomes in the past. Specifically, whereas some people tended to interpret surprise as negatively valenced, others tended toward a more positive interpretation. Here, we examined neural responses to social ambiguity using faces (surprise) and nonface emotional scenes (International Affective Picture System). Moreover, we examined whether these effects are specific to ambiguity resolution (i.e., judgments about the ambiguity) or whether similar effects would be demonstrated for incidental judgments (e.g., nonvalence judgments about ambiguously valenced stimuli). We found that a distinct task control (i.e., cingulo-opercular) network was more active when resolving ambiguity. We also found that activity in the ventral amygdala was greater to faces and scenes that were rated explicitly along the dimension of valence, consistent with findings that the ventral amygdala tracks valence. Taken together, there is a complex neural architecture that supports decision making in the presence of ambiguity: (a) a core set of cortical structures engaged for explicit ambiguity processing across stimulus boundaries and (b) other dedicated circuits for biologically relevant learning situations involving faces.