Social area of the brain sets threat level of animals

rabbit and snake

A part of the brain that helps us decode the intentions of other people may also assess an animal’s dangerousness, a study suggests.  

From left: Kevin Jump/Flickr (CC BY 2.0); Omar Ariff/iStockphoto

A particular wrinkle in the brain may be where you separate a scary scorpion from a benign bunny.  The brain area, involved in social behavior, also assesses how threatening animals are, scientists propose May 11 in the Journal of Neuroscience.

Twelve adults underwent brain scans while viewing pictures of animals ranging from ladybugs to wolves. The animal-inspired threat level corresponded with patterns of brain activity in tissue just above the right ear, a neural fold called the superior temporal sulcus, Andrew Connolly of Dartmouth College and colleagues found.

This patch of brain has been linked to social abilities such as reading other people’s expressions and interpreting the direction of their gaze. If these new results hold up, the superior temporal sulcus has a broader job of helping us make sense of others’ intentions, including those of animals that would do us harm. 

Laura Sanders is the neuroscience writer. She holds a Ph.D. in molecular biology from the University of Southern California.

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