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This research is the first step in understanding how our brains process information about collective units, said Dr. David Eagleman.

It’s easy to think of companies like Google and Exxon as single entities, instead of as the numerous independent people who comprise the organization.   

This way of thinking has become a hotly debated topic in the American legal system, which has extended the rights of individuals to corporations (“corporate personhood”) and has held corporations, as a collective unit, liable (“corporate liability”). For example, in the 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision, the United States Supreme Court granted corporations the right to free speech.

“We can’t understand the basis of the legal system until we understand human brains,” said Dr. David Eagleman, assistant professor of neuroscience at Baylor College of Medicine and director of the Initiative on Neuroscience and Law. “So we set out to understand how the brain understands corporations.”

In a study reported this week in the journal Social Neuroscience, Eagleman and his team investigated whether human brains unconsciously perceive a corporation as an object or another person. They found that the brain perceives corporation as social beings.

In an experiment led by two of Eagleman’s students, Mark Plitt and Ricky Savjani, participants went into the brain scanner to undergo functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI. During fMRI, parts of the brain taking part in the activity being tested have a special signature on the scan.

During the scan, research subjects read short vignettes. Some were about objects, such as a piece of fruit or ironing board, while other stories told of people or corporations performing pro-social actions (e.g. donating to charity), anti-social actions (e.g. lying or breaking the law), or neutral actions (e.g. buying a printer).

When participants made judgments about people, specific areas of the brain involved in social reasoning became active. In contrast, when participants reasoned about an object, activity in these areas was diminished.

So what happened when people made judgments about the behavior of companies? Were companies understood more like people or like objects?

“The patterns of activity involved in judging corporations were almost the same as those involved in judging people,” said Savjani. “In other words, corporations are represented by the brain as social beings rather than inanimate objects.”

Co-author Plitt, an undergraduate at the time of the study, added, “We found that vignettes about both people and corporations elicited greater activity in the ‘mentalizing’ network than vignettes about objects,” said Plitt. “This network is responsible for representing the actions and thoughts of others.”

“Activation of this mentalizing network indicates that we apply human-like mechanisms of moral reasoning and perspective-taking when evaluating the actions of corporations,” said Eagleman.

The researchers combed for differences between the neural responses to people and corporations, and they found only one. Using a technique called multi-voxel pattern analysis, they discovered that the emotional signature of brain activity tended to be biased in the negative direction for corporations. That is, when reading a neutral story about a corporation, the pattern of activity looked like that of a negative story.

“It seemed that the participants already had a small negative prejudice against the companies, similar to the way one might pre-judge a person who looks suspicious,” explained Savjani.

“Much of the human brain’s circuitry is involved in understanding other human brains,” Eagleman said. “Corporations are a new player on the evolutionary scene, far too recent to have some sort of dedicated representation in the brain – and so we end up understanding a company the same way we understand other people.” 

This research is a first step to understanding how our brains process information about collective units such as corporations, said Eagleman. By itself, it won’t change anything about how we run our legal system. But it does suggest that the legal concept of "corporate personhood" is not simply a fantasy child of legal scholars, but instead mirrors something inherent about the operation of human brains.

Funding for this work came from the Initiative on Neuroscience and the Law.