Rebecca Saxe studies human social cognition, using a combination of behavioral testing and brain imaging technologies. She is best known for her discovery of a brain region that is specialized for “theory of mind” tasks that involve understanding the mental states of other people. Although it was known previously that the brains of humans and animals have regions that are specialized for basic functions such as vision and motor control, this was the first example of a brain region specialized for constructing abstract thoughts.
Saxe continues to study this region and its role in social cognition. She has shown that it is involved when we make moral judgements about other people, and she is also exploring its possible role in autism, a condition in which the ability to understand other people’s beliefs and motivations is often impaired.
Another theme of Saxe’s research is the development of the human brain during early infancy. She has developed new methods for scanning young babies, which she is using to study the emergence of specialized visual areas that respond selectively to different categories of stimuli, including faces and scenes. Her work has revealed that the large-scale organization of the infant visual system is surprisingly similar to that of adults. She is currently examining how experience interacts with the intrinsic wiring of the newborn brain to shape its subsequent development.
Rebecca Saxe is an associate investigator of the McGovern Institute and a Professor in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences. She obtained her Ph.D. from MIT and was a Harvard Junior Fellow before joining the MIT faculty in 2006. She was awarded tenure in 2011. Saxe was chosen In 2012 as a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum, and she received the 2014 Troland Award from the National Academy of Sciences.