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Hum Mov Sci. 2007 Aug;26(4):590-616. Epub 2007 Aug 13.

Evidence for a distributed hierarchy of action representation in the brain.

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Department of Psychology, Room 3837, Building 251, University of California, Santa Barbara, CA 93106, United States.


Complex human behavior is organized around temporally distal outcomes. Behavioral studies based on tasks such as normal prehension, multi-step object use and imitation establish the existence of relative hierarchies of motor control. The retrieval errors in apraxia also support the notion of a hierarchical model for representing action in the brain. In this review, three functional brain imaging studies of action observation using the method of repetition suppression are used to identify a putative neural architecture that supports action understanding at the level of kinematics, object centered goals and ultimately, motor outcomes. These results, based on observation, may match a similar functional-anatomic hierarchy for action planning and execution. If this is true, then the findings support a functional-anatomic model that is distributed across a set of interconnected brain areas that are differentially recruited for different aspects of goal-oriented behavior, rather than a homogeneous mirror neuron system for organizing and understanding all behavior.

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