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PLoS One. 2012;7(10):e46939. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0046939. Epub 2012 Oct 10.

Understanding and imitating unfamiliar actions: distinct underlying mechanisms.

Author information

  • 1Sector of Cognitive Neuroscience, Scuola Internazionale Superiore di Studi Avanzati, Trieste, Italy. carmo@fp.ul.pt

Abstract

The human "mirror neuron system" has been proposed to be the neural substrate that underlies understanding and, possibly, imitating actions. However, since the brain activity with mirror properties seems insufficient to provide a good description for imitation of actions outside one's own repertoire, the existence of supplementary processes has been proposed. Moreover, it is unclear whether action observation requires the same neural mechanisms as the explicit access to their meaning. The aim of this study was two-fold as we investigated whether action observation requires different processes depending on 1) whether the ultimate goal is to imitate or understand the presented actions and 2) whether the to-be-imitated actions are familiar or unfamiliar to the subject. Participants were presented with both meaningful familiar actions and meaningless unfamiliar actions that they had to either imitate or discriminate later. Event-related Potentials were used as differences in brain activity could have been masked by the use of other techniques with lower temporal resolution. In the imitation task, a sustained left frontal negativity was more pronounced for meaningless actions than for meaningful ones, starting from an early time-window. Conversely, observing unfamiliar versus familiar actions with the intention of discriminating them led to marked differences over right centro-posterior scalp regions, in both middle and latest time-windows. These findings suggest that action imitation and action understanding may be sustained by dissociable mechanisms: while imitation of unfamiliar actions activates left frontal processes, that are likely to be related to learning mechanisms, action understanding involves dedicated operations which probably require right posterior regions, consistent with their involvement in social interactions.

PMID:
23071668
[PubMed - indexed for MEDLINE]
PMCID:
PMC3468605
Free PMC Article
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