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J Cogn Neurosci. 2008 Sep;20(9):1611-23. doi: 10.1162/jocn.2008.20111.

The sense of touch: embodied simulation in a visuotactile mirroring mechanism for observed animate or inanimate touch.

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Department of Clinical Sciences and Bioimaging, G. d'Annunzio University, Chieti, Italy.


Previous studies have shown a shared neural circuitry in the somatosensory cortices for the experience of one's own body being touched and the sight of intentional touch. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), the present study aimed to elucidate whether the activation of a visuotactile mirroring mechanism during touch observation applies to the sight of any touch, that is, whether it is independent of the intentionality of observed touching agent. During fMRI scanning, healthy participants viewed video clips depicting a touch that was intentional or accidental, and occurring between animate or inanimate objects. Analyses showed equal overlapping activation for all the touch observation conditions and the experience of one's own body being touched in the bilateral secondary somatosensory cortex (SII), left inferior parietal lobule (IPL)/supramarginal gyrus, bilateral temporal-occipital junction, and left precentral gyrus. A significant difference between the sight of an intentional touch, compared to an accidental touch, was found in the left primary somatosensory cortex (SI/Brodmann's area [BA] 2). Interestingly, activation in SI/BA 2 significantly correlated with the degree of intentionality of the observed touch stimuli as rated by participants. Our findings show that activation of a visuotactile mirroring mechanism for touch observation might underpin an abstract notion of touch, whereas activation in SI might reflect a human tendency to "resonate" more with a present or assumed intentional touching agent.

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